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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: Moonlight (Movie); One of These Things First (Memoir); Say You're Sorry (Mystery); A Spool of Blue Thread (Novel); End of Watch (Suspense); Local Knowledge (Anthropology)

Moonlight (Movie) written by Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney; directed by Barry Jenkins; starring Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, Andr Holland, Alex Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Mone

I’m not sure how necessary it is to have a location specified early on in the telling of a story. In this movie, some indication as to the setting would have helped to orient oneself. If we had known where these people were, that might have helped to tell us who they were, and what they were doing. This question of location was pestering me for at least the first half of the movie but I gradually decided that we were in some place like one of the less affluent districts of Miami: very flat, hot, lots of palm trees, modest bungalow housing. (It turned out that my guess was correct.)

Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a black kid of about ten, is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a black man who sees that Chiron is being bullied by other kids. A bonding develops between Chiron and Juan, although Chiron says very little. (Later in life, one of his friends says of Chiron: "You never say more than three words together.") Given that Chiron has a sullen, pouty expression on his face most of the time, it’s mainly his eyes that speak. Juan, a thoughtful, cautious character – interestingly played by Mr. Ali – teaches Chrion to swim, in spite of the fact that Chiron’s mother objects to the friendship between Juan and her son. Then a complication surfaces: Chiron’s mom (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict and she’s buying her drugs through the street dealers controlled by Juan. When Chiron catches on to that situation, things looks pretty complicated. Not to mention that Chiron’s starting to ask Juan questions about sexual orientation.

Come the second act, however, Juan is dropped as we move into Chiron’s teen years. (Another actor, Ashton Sanders, takes over as Chiron at this stage of his life.) Chiron’s issues of sexual identity now become the crux of the story. The big problem with the movie at this point is that a huge dramatic crisis, in effect the main turning point of the story, is too contrived, too staged. That’s partly because the high school context is unrelievedly violent and abusive towards Chiron. I tend to lose interest in a story that’s so manipulative for dramatic effect. Also, the teens here look over-rehearsed, with the result that the scenes come off like set pieces. The movie is so determined in its grim slog forward that it doesn’t let anybody seem spontaneous.

Following that crisis, we jump to Chiron’s adult years (played by Trevante Rhodes). It becomes difficult, for a while, to realize that we’re still dealing with Chiron. He’s beefed up a lot and his life situation is vastly different from when we last saw him. Part of the problem with picking up the clues as to what’s going on is that the dialect of the actors is extremely hard to decipher for anybody who isn’t well attuned to what might be termed, I believe, hip-hop culture. However, one does eventually figure out enough of the speech to understand what’s going on in a general way.

Ultimately, we come to a kind of resolution of Chiron’s questions about himself. The ending is touching but not as poignant as it’s meant to be. That’s partly because of Chiron’s taciturn nature. He says so little that it’s hard to get to know him well enough to care very much about him. But the unsatisfying nature of the ending also has to do with the fact that the movie doesn’t have a discernible thread that carries us through. That first section with Juan makes it look like it’s going to be a complex story about the relationship between him and Chiron but, in the second and third parts, we’re merely following Chiron through a few incidents. There’s a carry-over of one relationship from the teen to the adult years but that’s not enough to give a sense of coherence to the whole movie.

Maybe the underlying problem is that the tone of the movie is so arty, almost to the point of being pretentious:  solemn, ominous music much of the time; special visual effects, such as ultra-colourful lighting. The many portentous close-ups of Chiron’s sculpted face and his aura of muteness risk turning him into an icon rather than a real person. The whole thing might have worked better if the filmmakers had turned the melodrama down a few notches, concentrated on making Chiron less elusive and enigmatic. If he were someone we could identify with, we might be more moved by seeing where his journey takes him.

Note: Given the rapturous response to Moonlight from most quarters, I think it may be the kind of movie that people really appreciate if they read up on it first, if they know what it’s all about; then they can sit back and just watch how the movie makes its points without worrying about what’s going on. I prefer to come to a movie unprepared, to let it do its work on me without prior explanation. I think that’s the test of a truly well-made movie. This movie doesn’t pass that test.

 

One of These Things First (Memoir) by Steven Gaines, 2016

Steven Gaines is, apparently, a best-selling author and well known journalist, but this was my first encounter with his work. This short memoir (just 196 pages) starts dramatically – with Steven’s attempted suicide, at the age of fifteen, by pushing his arms through a glass window at his grandfather’s store. Although the cause of his desperation isn’t clearly explained at the outset, we gradually deduce that it’s because of young Steven’s perception that he is, to use the terminology of the times, a "homo."

Following the failed suicide attempt, comes some backstory featuring colourful inhabitants of the author’s Brooklyn neighbourhood in his childhood. This I found not to be the most engaging part of the book. Too many characters pass by too quickly. You get the sense that the author enjoys these fond reminiscences but the writing here has a slightly I-guess-you-had-to-be-there feeling.

Gradually, though Mr. Gaines' voice began to win me over. Much of the charm comes from Mr. Gaines’ humour. One could almost say that making fun of oneself has become a clich of certain kinds of gay writing, but Mr. Gaines does it very entertainingly. We soon catch on to the fact that his life is largely a matter of envisioning himself in starring movie roles. When talking about one of his early suicide plans, he says: "Later that night I would slip out of the house and throw myself under the D train, northbound to Manhattan, which I thought was more glamorous than throwing myself under a train headed to Coney Island."

Later, he tells us that, for his first meal in the mental hospital where he landed following his actual suicide attempt, he donned an ensemble of cocoa-brown pants and eggplant shirt, thinking he looked "very spiffy." On his entrance to the dining room, however, the assembled patients gaped in stupefaction and one geezer sneered at him. "I guess," Steven thinks, "he didn’t know eggplant was the big color that season."

Much of the book consists of Steven’s stay in the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic. He’d originally been scheduled for consignment to a less alluring establishment but the knowledge that Marilyn Monroe had spent some time in the Payne Whitney made him choose it. The place was renowned for the famous artistes it had given refuge to at various times: Carson McCullers, William S. Burroughs, Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy and James Schuyler. For Steven, life among the patients with their shifting rivalries, emnities and alliances constitutes a veritable soap opera.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Gaines refers to many of the patients by their real names, although he does explain, in an author’s note, that some names have been changed. Among the famous patients, perhaps the one who had the most influence on Steven was Richard Halliday, the film critic and producer who was the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin. Come visiting day, Steven is breathless at the thought of meeting such a megastar in the flesh. His first encounter with her is somewhat perfunctory, but a relationship develops in which Ms. Martin and Mr. Halliday provide books for Steven, acting as mentors in his discovery of great literature.

The more momentous discoveries, though, have to do with Steven’s psychotherapy sessions with a young doctor. An analysis that strikes a somewhat bizzarely Freudian note (from today’s point of view) explains that the young man’s homosexuality developed as a result of sharing a bedroom with his parents as a little boy: he must have seen them having sex and that’s what diverted him from the straight path of sexuality. If there’s any validity to looking for parental influences that might damage a person's character development, I would cite his father’s antipathy to Steven. The man seems to have been viciously mean at times, often making it clear that he didn’t much like or approve of his son.

In the end, though, Steven and his father come to a moving reconciliation. An even more meaningful meeting is Mr. Gaines’ reunion, fifty years after those sessions at the Payne Whitney, with the pyschiatrist who tried to cure him of his homosexuality. The exchange between the two men – what might be called a burying of the hatchet – is profoundly affecting and consoling, not only to the two of them, but also to the reader.

 

Say You’re Sorry (Mystery) by Michael Robotham, 2012

This Australian writer came to my attention through a New York Times review of another book. In the review, Michael Robotham was mentioned as a writer worth noting. I agree. The writing in Say You’re Sorry is taught, redolent with atmosphere and character, replete with good surprises and plotting that’s devious but not too complicated.

At first, we’re following two stories. One is about the murder of a married couple in their isolated farmhouse near Oxford. The other is about two teenage girls who were abducted about three years earlier. Their story is being told by one of the girls in a journal that she’s keeping in captivity. It may not be revealing too much here to say that the other girl has escaped. That’s indicated early on in her friend’s journal, although I, as a reader, didn’t quite catch it at first. We necessarily expect that these two stories must somehow come together. They do when we discover that the house inhabited by the murdered couple was, before they acquired it, the home of the girl who has escaped from captivity.

We’re following the murder investigation from the point of view of Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist who has been called in to help the police with things like suspect profiles. I’m skeptical of that as an investigative tool, although I understand it’s a very popular trope in tv crime shows these days. Mr. Robotham, however, may be trying to pre-empt my objection by having the police express doubts about the efficacy of the psychologist just as much as I do – and even more so – to the point of open hostility. Still, I didn’t buy the psychologist’s interpretation of a tiny twitch in a suspect’s eye as "the tell," i.e. the sign that the suspect is lying. That strikes me as one of those fictional devices that probably don’t have much correspondance to real life.

The journal of the abducted teen presented a problem for me, at first. The subject of women held in captivity seems somewhat over-exposed in contemporary culture, whether in fictional versions (Emma Donoghue’s Room) or true-life ones (Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life) and, among others, the ghastly experience of the three women held captive in Cleveland by Ariel Castro. However, Piper, the writer of this journal is a feisty young woman whose remarks are well worth reading. About her pal, Tash, the girl who was abducted with her, Piper says: "Even in her school uniform she was striking, with breasts like hood ornaments that announced her arrival." And Piper has this to say about her mother:

She’s very elegant and graceful and nothing ever creases or smears around her. She’s like a doll that you’re not allowed to play with, but instead have to keep it in the original box because one day it’s going to be worth a lot of money.

About half way through Say You’re Sorry, Piper informs us, in desperation, that she is running out of paper for the journal that she’s keeping in captivity. How then, I had to wonder, were we able to read her journal for hundreds more pages? But never mind; maybe that’s just a technical glitch, an oversight on the part of Mr. Robotham. The journal makes for gripping reading, particularly at the page-turning climax of the book.

Among minor flaws in the novel, a forensic pathologist’s freaking out over something discovered in an autopsy struck me as over-the-top. It was understandable that the man would be upset, but not so panicked that he would banish his students from the room where he’s conducting the autopsy. In what would seem to be another example of the author’s tendency to exaggerate, he has a crowd rioting outside the house of a man they believe to be guilty of a heinous crime. Do people act that way in reality or only in novels where authors need to pump up the drama? And I had some misgivings about the author’s falling back on one of the hoariest of plot props in mysteries: a huge snowstorm. But Mr. Robotham uses the device so skilfully that it serves his story well. It makes for swamped call boards, cars stranded, police not able to provide help and, of course, intriguing footprints.

On the whole, then, Mr. Robotham spins a good yarn. He shows flashes of delicious wit, as in this comment by a guy whose wife complains that he doesn't have any feelings. He has three feelings, he says: "I’m hungry, horny and tired – in that order." However, I didn’t take much stock in the psychologist’s final analysis – spread over several pages – of the culprit’s motivation for his despicable deeds. Maybe some readers enjoy that sort of thing. The fact that I don’t, however, didn’t spoil my sense of the book as a good read.

 

A Spool of Blue Thread (Novel) by Anne Tyler, 2015

Far be it for me to consider myself a better judge of fiction than the jurors of the Man Booker, but it’s difficult for me to believe that this novel was short-listed for the prize in 2015.

It is, in essence, a sprawling family saga about Abby and Red and their three adult kids. If you like a gentle, ramble through the years, with flashbacks to the parents’ romantic courting, little dramas that emerge from time to time, then perhaps you’ll find this book pleasurable. I didn’t. Granted, Ms. Tyler is an esteemed writer and I’ve probably enjoyed some of her New Yorker stories. But there’s a slack that-happened-and-then-this happened quality to this novel. The author seems to be taking a leisurely approach to spinning tales about people she likes, much as one would talk about beloved relatives, without managing to capture her listener's attention. 

That may be because there’s no immediacy or urgency to the writing. The following passage, about the family’s departure on a summer holiday, struck me as one of the worst examples of the tedium:

It took a total of five vehicles to carry them all to the beach. They could have managed with fewer, but Red insisted, as usual, on driving his pickup. How else could they bring everything they needed, he always asked – the rafts and boogie boards, the sand toys for the children, the kites and the paddle-ball racquets and the giant canvas shade canopy with its collapsible metal frame? (In the old days, before computers, he used to include the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.) So he and Abby made the three-hour trip in the pickup while Denny drove Abby’s car with Susan in the passenger seat and the food hampers in the rear. Stem and Nora and the three little boys came in Nora’s car, and Jeannie and Jeannie’s Hugh started out separately from their own house with their two children, though not with Hugh’s mother, who always spent the beach week visiting Hugh’s sister in California.

Following this mind-numbing boredom, we’re treated to a few more pages of trivial details about settling into the beach house.

The novel abounds with good will and kindly people but I found myself unable to care much about most of the characters. When the family members do fall into skirmishes, they seemed trumped up to me. About half-way through the book, then, I started skipping vast swaths of text, in the hopes of finding out if there was any merit in perservering to the end. Not that I could see. It turns out that a big secret has been lying at the heart of the family but it’s  the sort of thing that’s standard fare in novels and plays these days.

The one character who did intrigue me was the son Denny.. The novel opens with his abrupt phone call to his parents announcing that he’s gay. This takes them completely by surprise. But there’s no follow-up. We never get any indications as to why he said that; his life seems to proceed on heterosexual lines, although there’s still something mysterious about him. The main reason I kept reading was to find out what it was. At times, I found myself wondering: why do I care so much about this character? He’s fictional after all! So Ms. Tyler must have been doing something right to make me so interested in that one person. In the end, though, there was no explanation of what was going on with Denny. He just happened to be a kind of elusive guy.

 

End of Watch (Suspense) by Stephen King, 2016

This is the final installment in Stephen King’s trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes, the second book being Finders Keepers. Right off the top of End of Watch, we have a connection to the grisly crime that opened Mr. Mercedes. A young woman who was paralyzed in that crime, nearly twenty years ago, is now found dead, apparently murdered by her mother, who seems to have killed herself by suicide. Our favourite retired cop, Bill Hodges, and Holly Gibney, his sidekick, are called in for a bit of help by Hodges’ buddy cop who’s on the point of retiring himself.

Why would this devoted mother have killed her daughter and herself when, according to all reports, they seemed happy and content? An intriguing premise. However, Hodges, who has discovered that he has a major health crisis on his hands, can’t stop obsessing about the wacko who caused the tragedy in the first book and who, as a result of Holly’s bonking him on the head with a sock full of rocks, is now locked up in hospital in a seeming vegetative state. And that leads us into sci-fi territory: telekinesis, mental telepathy and all that. One character has the ability to inhabit other people’s minds and bodies to the extent that it becomes impossible, for me at any rate, to tell exactly who we’re dealing with in any given instance.

I suppose this is the kind of thing you have to be prepared for in some Stephen King books. As with his book that turns back time to see what might have happened if John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, I simply can’t buy into the fantastic element. So I had to skip a great deal of End of Watch. Some elements of the big climax seemed both predictable and laboured. And the sentimental ending was too conventional. But I did read enough to find out what happens to Hodges in the end. I cared that much about him. That tells us something.

 

Local Knowledge (Anthropology) by Clifford Geertz, 1983

Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.

That quote, in a New York Times review of another book, stopped me dead. Doesn’t it sum up everything? For me it does. So I had to read some of the work by the person who’d said it.

Clifford Geertz, who died in 2006, was a Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. (Actually, it turns out that Professor Geertz, in the cited quote, was echoing a statement by Max Weber, but never mind.) Although he was widely considered the most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States, the Toronto library isn’t exactly teeming with his books. The copy of Local Knowledge that came to me is so old that it has an envelope in the front for the antiquated library card.

This collection of essays did give me a good introduction to the man’s thinking. I love the way his mind works. It’s meticulous and fair, always open to corrections, revisions and other points of view. The writing is sprinkled with the kind of humour that speaks of a person who’s utterly confident, yet relaxed, about his eminence in his field.

Among the chapters that I particularly enjoyed was the one on Common Sense. Professor Geertz convinced me that what we take for common sense – or obvious wisdom – is highly conditioned by culture. While you and I might see that falling over an obstacle and breaking your leg is clearly the result of not watching where you were walking, to people of another culture it could just as demonstrably be the result of not offering sufficient homage to the gods that morning. In a chapter on Art, the professor makes it clear that what we perceive as beauty is totally filtered through our cultural conditioning, no matter how much we insist that there are universal standards for such judgements. A chapter on Charisma shows that the ways monarchs and other leaders make a show of their powers differ greatly from culture to culture.

However, I had to give up on the final, lengthy chapter (sixty-six pages) about the interplay between fact and law in different cultures. Much as I admire the workings of Professor Geertz’s mind, his writing eventually becomes too scupulously precise and cautious for comfortable reading. Every statement is loaded with commas that enclose qualifications, modifications, and reservations. There’s almost a Proustian long-windedness to some of the sentences, making it difficult to keep track of the main subject and verb. For example:

The reaction (from those ethnographers, sociologists of knowledge, historians of science, devotees of ordinary language) whose en plein air working conditions make it hard for them to ignore the fact that, however computers may work, grammar arise, or eros unfold, thinking as we find it lying about "in nature" is nothing if not various, has been to move the issue out of the cobweb world of mentality and restate it in terms of the supposedly more tensile one of meaning.

And:

But whatever the approach (and there are others), what formerly was seen as a question of the comparability of psychological processes from one people to the next is now seen, given how much more one would have to deny these days in denying that, as a question of the commensurability of conceptual structures from one discourse, community to the next, a change of formulation that has led some inquirers into what I suppose we might call practical epistemology, Victor Turner, Edmund Leach, Mircea Eliade or Melford Spiro, for example, out of relativism and others, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Nelson Goodman, or myself, for example, more complexly into it.

In the introduction to the book, the professor explains that the chapters were originally delivered as a lectures, each one to a different sort of audience. One can only hope that the professor’s listeners were guided through the thicket of his ideas by variations in voice tone, smiling asides and such. For the reader – this one at any rate – the going eventually got too tough. But it left me craving more anthropology, if only it could be packaged in more accessible writing.

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