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June 16/17

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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: Snatched, The Lost City of Z, The Salesman and A Quiet Passion (Movies); Amorous (DVD); Der Rosenkavalier and Idomeneo (Operas); A Love Story (Short Fiction); The Writer's Process (Essay); The Wisdom of Frugality (Philosophy); The Gods of Guilt (Mystery); The Road to Little Dribbling (Travelogue); Plenty (Playscript)

Snatched (Movie) written by Katie Dippold; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Amy Shumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Bateman, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack.

What to do when a movie gets opposing reviews from two sources that you trust: good (NOW Magazine) and bad (The New Yorker)? Well, maybe you can give it a try on an afternoon when you’re wandering around downtown with time to kill.

The premise of this one certainly looks promising. Emily (Amy Schumer) has just been dumped by her boyfriend; he’s opted out of their planned Equador vacation. Because the trip is non-refundable, Emily persuades her mom, Linda (Goldie Hawn), to come along. Emily is a liberated woman (to put it mildly) and Linda is a Nervous Nellie. How many movies can you recall that have a mother/daughter setup like that? This one almost begs for the women to get kidnapped for ransom. Of course there’d be no comedy if they were stuck in a dungeon for the duration. So they escape quickly – and often – much to the rage of their captors.

For the first half hour or so, I was siding with the New Yorker’s negative review. Something about the movie wasn’t working for me. I think that had mainly to do with the dialogue and the Amy Schumer character. My review of Ms. Schumer’s work in Trainwreck (reviewed on DD Sept 4/15) made full admission of my difficulty with the potty-mouthed humour of this kind of person. I grant that there’s a certain ingenuity in a comedian’s daring to say things that other people won’t say, but it strikes me that too much of Ms. Schumer’s shtick relies on explicit sexual references. You begin to wonder: Doesn’t she have some other way of being funny?

Well, yes, she does. Take the opening scene of Snatched. It’s in a dress shop and Emily is assessing the way different outfits look on her, asking another woman for her opinion. It turns out, though, that Emily isn’t the customer; she’s the sales person, the other woman is the customer. And then there are the many instances of self-deprecating humour, where Ms. Schumer’s character acknowledges that she isn’t quite the typical Hollywood beauty. But it feels like this somewhat klutzy, inept person is reaching out too desperately with her humour in a plea for your sympathy. Phyllis Diller used to make fun of her own appearance, but you could take it because you knew she was tough as nails.

Hence my uneasiness with this movie until the plot kicked into high gear. And then it became interesting according to the simplest narrative dynamic: How’re they gonna get out of this predicament? Several clever twists crop up and some inventive tomfoolrey. You have to overlook a lot of glaring improbabilities, but that’s okay, as long as things keep moving quickly. Some entertaining characters emerge. Ruth (Wanda Sykes), an interfering woman, is obnoxious at first, but she turns out to have a useful purpose later on, as does her mute sidekick Barb (Joan Cusack) who used to work in Special Operations. There’s the dweeby employee (Al Madrigal) who’s only in his third day at the US Consulate in Bogata and who doesn’t yet know how to work the phones. Emily wants him to be their knight in shining armour but he tries to convince her: "I’m not the guy!" Then there’s Emily’s nerdy brother back home (Ike Barinholtz), a mamma’s boy and a piano teacher who seems to have a case of agoraphobia. He gets into an intriguing contretemps with an implacable State Department official who seems insufficiently perturbed about the plight of the kidnapped women.

Inevitably, one of the worst moments of their ordeal leads to an in-depth mother/daughter confrontation when they let it all rip: their resentments about their lives and each other. It’s a searing and surprisingly genuine encounter that shows what a great actor Goldie Hawn is.

My ultimate verdict on the movie then? Good for a casual look – maybe for an evening in front of the tv when you want something light and you’re too tired for anything else. But not good enough to merit dragging yourself out to the mall. Ironically, though, the showing of Snatched that I attended opened with a flourish of a kind that I’d never seen before. Ms. Schumer and Ms. Hawn appeared on screen, speaking to us audience members and effusively thanking us for coming to see their work in an actual theatre. Too bad I can’t urge everybody to do likewise.

 

The Lost City of Z (Movie) written and directed by James Gray; based on the book by David Grann; starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis.

In the early 20th century, Percy Fawcett, a colonel in the British army, was sent to South America to try to settle the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia. Colonel Fawcett, feeling himself something of an underachiever in military terms, wasn’t thrilled with the asssignment at first. It felt to him like, if not a demotion, being pushed aside, distanced from the main action. Gradually, though, he became fascinated with the territory, especially when he heard tales of the remnants of a glorious ancient civilization hidden somewhere in the depths of the jungle. The rest of his life became something of an obsessive search for that city. He kept returning to the jungle when he wasn’t tending to duties like a stint of service in the First World War.

Initially, people back in England ridiculed his quest. They equated it with ludicrous fantasies about the fabled "Eldorado." The racism of the times is blatant: experts scoff at the possibility that a "savage" people could have achieved a civilization to match the grandeur of ours. Eventually, though, he acquired the support of the Royal Geographical Society. (One of the pleasures of the movie is watching veteran British actors portray these dignitaries with exquisite aplomb.) His cause became popular enough that other renowned explorers sometimes accompanied Fawcett on his journeys. As the movie would have it, he did find some intriguing artifacts and signs that seemed to hint at the reality of what he was looking for.

Watching a movie like this, you can’t avoid expectations that you’re going to get a touch of Indiana Jones. But you have to try to set aside those notions. This movie, based on a book by David Grann, is true-to-life, down to every painstaking detail involved in a slog through such punishing terrain. Not that there isn’t adventure or high drama. Lethal arrows have a way of whizzing out of the greenery when you least expect them. And nature – a surging river, for example – can wreck havoc with your plans. At times, the struggle for survival is excruciating. And some companions on your journey can be more trouble than anything. Although the movie’s too long, memory flashes of life back home – while Fawcett’s in great peril – are artistically handled.

Only in a couple of respects does the movie, in my opinion, falter in terms of versimilitude. First, there’s Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). She’s an intelligent woman, but it strikes me as a bit anachronistic that she is arguing with him about the equality of partners in a marriage. She does make important contributions to his research but she sounds too much like today’s liberated woman when she’s insiting that her sex is no reason for him not to let her accompany him on his dangerous travels. Maybe it’s possible that Nina Fawcett really did have such an attitude but her words sound to me like a scriptwriter’s flight of fancy.

I had problems, too, with the contemporary sound of Fawcett’s son, Jack (Tom Holland). When Fawcett comes back from the First World War, the boy – then about twelve – lambastes his dad for not spending enough time with the family, for not being a really good dad by taking more interests in his kids. To me, it’s unthinkable that any son of a proper British family, especially one of a military character, would attack his father on such an issue.

Apart from those two glitches in terms of tone, the movie strikes me as an honest, if somewhat relentless, depiction of what Fawcett’s difficult life must have been like. About half way through, however, I began to wonder why we were watching a movie like this. What did the filmmaker want to show us? Were we expecting a kind of triumphant conclusion? A bit of Indiana Jones, after all? If not, what would there be to take home? The movie’s ending – probably not the one you’re anticipating – leaves you to answer that question for yourself.

 

The Salesman (original title: Forushande) (Movie) written and directed by Asghar Farhadi; starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini.

Sometimes, one of the best things about a movie is that it gives you a close look into a way of life that’s quite different from yours. If you add a gripping story, you’re dealing with a truly remarkable movie. That’s the case with this winner of the Oscar for best foreign film at the Academy Awards this year.

A man who’s a resident of Tehran, a high school teacher and an amateur actor (Shahab Hosseini), comes home to his apartment one day to find blood on the stairs and in the shower. His wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) is nowhere to be seen. He eventually finds that she’s in the ER at the local hospital, having been taken there by neighbours. She was attacked in the shower but she didn’t get a good enough look at the assailant to identify him. The crux of the movie isn’t spelled out precisely; it’s up to us viewers to infer that it’s a cultural issue: because of the tremendous shame of such an incident, the wife refuses to let her husband report it to the police. It’s up to him, then, to find the culprit on his own. Hence, the makings of an excellent mystery.

Along the way, we get a fascinating look at what life is like for middle-class residents of Tehran today: the decor of their apartments (lots of tiles), the preparation of meals, the ambiance of a classroom of teenage boys, ways of going about selling a car, methods of making unofficial contact with people in the police department who can provide helpful tips, the cameraderie among a group of amateur actors, how cell phones feature in daily life, the problems a woman might have about sharing a taxi with some men. You get some idea of the modesty of the culture in that nobody can bring themselves to speak of one character as a "prostitute." She's referred to as "promiscuous" at worst, or, even more coyly, as a woman who has many men visitors.

The production that our hero is involved in is a translation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He's playing Willy Loman and, in spite of being attacked, his wife is playing the part of Willy’s wife, Linda. She is probably only in her thirties but she takes on a lot of ageing makeup for the role. We see her struggling to carry on with the performance despite her considerable trauma. However, the relevance of this production in the context of the main plot – i.e. the search for the attacker – is one of the few problematic aspects of the movie for me. You would think that the prominence of Mr. Miller’s play would have some major significance with regard to the rest of what’s going on. But I couldn’t see any very meaningful connection. Perhaps there’s some ironic comparison implied in the fact that this married couple in Tehran, who are living through such a personal crisis, are portraying the roles of the middle-aged couple from quite another culture and another time. If some such implication is intended, it strikes me as too pale to have much impact.

The only other possible flaw in the movie is the role of the wife. She is largely passive and submissive. The husband makes all the moves, all the decisions. Granted, this is probably customary in the culture that the movie portrays. And, to the movie’s great credit, its culmination comes about because of a brave decision on the wife’s part, in defiance of her husband. That was surely an important statement on the part of the filmmakers. For a viewer from our culture, however, it doesn’t quite make up for the fact that it feels as though there was something of an empty space at the centre of the movie where the woman’s character could have been.

 

A Quiet Passion (Movie) written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Joanna Bacon, Eric Loren

For creative types – like novelists and filmmakers – the great thing about Emily Dickinson’s life is that it was so quiet, so mysterious and enigmatic, that you can make whatever you like of it. I eagerly approached this version by Terence Davies, having fond memories of his The Long Day Closes. It struck me as beautiful back in the early 1990s, but that was before the inception of Dilettante’s Diary, so we have no detailed record of my impressions.

In the visual sense, A Quiet Passion is extremely beautiful too. Although it was filmed mostly in Belgium, we get lush, loving renderings of the bucolic ambiance of semi-rural Amherst in the latter part of the 19th century. The interiors are even more devotedly filmed. As in The Long Day Closes, the camera takes long pans around rooms, dwelling in a painterly fashion on the ticking clocks, the draperies, the Victorian furniture, oil lamps, flowers in china vases. Makes you want to shuck off this brazen 21st century and rush back into a world that seemed so genteel (prescinding from a spot of bother like the Civil War).

We feel immersed in the warmth of the closely-knit family: mother and father (Joanna Bacon and Keith Carradine), daughter Emily (Cynthia Nixon), her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and their brother Austin (Duncan Duff). Towards the poet, her father is stern but loving. Vinnie is affectionate and supporting. Austin is loyal (if profligate in other respects). The mother may seem a trifle feckless but one of the most touching moments of the movie is the scene where, hearing the hymn "Abide With Me" played on the piano, she reminisces fondly about a young man who used to sing that song and who died at the age of nineteen.

Among other lovely touches, voice-over excerpts from Ms. Dickinson’s poetry are well integrated into the story. As for the central issue of the great poet’s life – her withdrawal to her room, dressing in white and behaving as almost a total recluse – Mr. Davies attributes it to her shock on losing the company of the great love of her life. At least, that seems to be the director/writer’s assumption; the intuitive, groping feel of the movie doesn’t spell things out but, on a mere chronological basis, it would appear that this rupture was the cause of the poet’s ensuing weirdness.

Her beloved (Eric Loren) was a married man and a church minster. There was nothing overtly immoral or indecent about their relationship, but he was the one man who understood and appreciated the poet fully. The garden scene where she hands him her hand-sewn book of poems and waits anxiously for his response is deeply touching. (Mind you, I found it implausible that his rapturous approval was so quick – after a glance lasting a few seconds – but never mind. ) It’s when Ms. Dickinson hears that he is leaving town for an assignment far away that her character begins to turn strange.

Apart from that flurry of excitement, her life was so uneventful that a filmmaker is obliged to stir up a bit of drama of his own making. Hence a lot of scenery chewing and gnashing of teeth over this and that. We’re made to think that controversy about the role of women writers was in the air. Although Ms. Dickinson’s stubborn refusal to submit to her father’s religious impositions strikes a contemporary note for movie-goers, one supposes that it’s probably an authentic reflection of the poet’s insistence on being true to herself.

The matter of authenticity becomes more problematic regarding the dialogue. Admittedly, it’s difficult for a scriptwriter to make speech from another era sound natural to us, but these people are far too arch in their high-toned pronouncements. It makes things seem even more artificial when every scene necessarily ends with a clanging curtain line. Witty epigrams keep dropping out of the air like chestnuts in autumn. A feisty, brash friend of Emily’s sounds like she’s auditioning for a part in an Oscar Wilde production.

But it’s the portrait of the poet that matters. In the end, the Emily Dickinson that Mr. Davies gives us isn’t particularly attractive. No matter how much you admire her poetry, her neurotic display, as given here, is repugnant: for example, standing in the door of her room, unseen by a gentleman caller who is speaking to her from the bottom of the stairs. But I suppose you have to allow that Mr. Davies’ attempt to explain such an extraordinary woman is valid, even if off-putting.

 

Amorous (DVD) written by Joanna Coates and Daniel Metz; directed by Joanna Coates; starring Josh O’Connor, Hannah Aerton, Rea Mole, Daniel Metz, Joe Banks.

Two young women and two young men – three Brits and one American – are fed up with urban life, so they head for an isolated house in the British countryside that belongs to the family of one of the foursome. There they intend to start living in a new way, free of the shackles of proper society.

At first, this looked like one of those stories that Ruth Rendell used to write under the pseudonym "Barbara Vine." In those novels, it always turned out that something really bad went down in some such remote location. The crux of the book, for the reader, would be trying to find out what had actually happened. In this case, there’s a similar air of mystery, although it’s fairly apparent that we’re not talking about crime or violence. The mystery arises from the fact that there’s very little dialogue and virtually no exposition. Our perception of what’s going on is based pretty much on surmise. We know nothing about these people, their backgrounds or their motives. All we get is what we see. That involves a lot of unimpeded sex. Pretty much anybody can team up with anybody. At some times, it seems that there’s a schedule for the couplings, but maybe not.

This moody film is beautifully and artistically shot – not just when it comes to exposed flesh, but also the countryside and rustic interiors. Sudden shifts, fades and blackouts create a striking visual aesthetic. After a while, though, you can’t help wondering if this movie is anything other than an excuse for soft-core porn. But a bit of a drama does evolve in the person of an intruder from the past, a lover of one of the group members. That crisis passes relatively quickly, however, and then it’s more fun and games. One of the women poses nude for a drawing session. The group members perform little variety shows for each other. They stage readings of Shakespeare’s plays. One scenario – in which a couple are acting out a breakup – becomes fascinating in that we, and the other group members, can’t tell for sure whether they’re acting or serious.

To my surprise, these shenanigans ultimately had an endearing effect. I found myself liking these deluded young people and wishing them well.

 

Der Rosenkavalier (Opera) by Richard Strauss; libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; directed by Robert Carsen; starring Rene Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Matthew Polenzani, Markus Brck, Gnther Groissbck; conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. HD Live Transmission, May 13, 2017.

Prior to this, I’d never seen Der Rosenkavalier. That could be because Richard Strauss isn’t my favourite composer As with most works in the Romantic genre, I find his music somewhat mushy, wallowing in emotion, lacking the structure and form to make things move forward. However, I’ve many times marvelled at the beauty of Der Rosenkavalier’s third act trio. But one thing about that trio drives me nuts: I can’t follow the three different voices; I can’t tell where any one singer is at any given time. Would seeing a production solve that problem? This looked like a good opportunity to find out. Another reason why attending this broadcast, the last performance of this year’s Met season, seemed like a good idea: both Elīna Garanča and Rene Fleming were bidding farewell to the roles that they have sung to great acclaim.

As the production evolved, it wasn’t the music that bothered me. In fact, I was struck by the haunting beauty of the score in several sections, particularly in the letter-reading scene in the second act. The big problem with the opera, for me, is the libretto. The story of the three intertwined lovers is touching, but the tomfoolrey surrounding them is intolerable. Maybe I’m allergic to Austrian humour? (Note my similar reaction to Die Fledermaus, reviewed on DD page dated Nov 6/12.) To think that people should be caught cavorting in a house of ill repute! Dear me, how risqu can things get!!! My research tells me that there was a prolonged argument between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his librettist, as to the mood of the opera. Strauss, reportedly, wanted a boisterous romp with the emphasis on the galumphing character of Baron Ochs; Hofmannsthal wanted a more refined touch, highlighting the lovers. I wish Strauss had yielded to the better judgement of his librettist. The plight of the three lovers would have made a gorgeous opera without the laboured attempt at farce.

The singing, of course, was superb, especially from Ms Garanča as Octavian and Ms Fleming as the Marschallin. The fact that this was Miss Fleming’s swan song in the role made it feel especially poignant when, in the concluding trio, her character was musing resignedly on the fact that she was getting old, that it was time to step aside and let the young lovers have their time in the sun. Another musical highlight of the show was Matthew Polenzani’s glorious singing in the cameo role of the Italian tenor in the first act. Since Mr. Polenzani had graciously agreed to host the intermission interviews as well, the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, handled the welcoming remarks at the top of the show. Then Mr. Polenzani, having doffed his costume, appeared in suit and tie for the intermission gig. That allowed for some amusing repartee when he and conductor Sebastian Weigle were sharing observations about the splendid singing of the cast members, including some unnamed fellow in the role of the Italian tenor.

This production’s up-dating of the setting from the original 18th century to 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, worked well. Robert Carsen’s direction had its good points – most notably in a scene where the men, in military uniforms, were dancing with imaginary partners; the mens’ white gloves on their extended arms were amazingly expressive. But there were times when I thought the direction was working too feverishly to be interesting, as for example, when five or six maids were following Sophie around the stage, frantically trying to sew sequins onto her dress as she flitted restlessly from one spot to the next. At one point, the members of the men’s chorus were crawling on the floor, to no purpose that I could discern.

Whatever my reservations about this production and this opera, the sublime final scene was worth the effort of attending. Oh, and by the way, it’s impossible to follow each of the three voices distinctly even when you’re watching the great trio.

 

Idomeneo (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Giambattista Varesco; directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; starring Nadine Sierra, Elza van den Heever, Alice Coote, Matthew Polenzani, Alan Opie; conducted by James Levine, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, March 25, 2017.

If I remember correctly, Idomeneo has sometimes been referred to as Mozart’s only "failed" opera. If so, that could only be because of the libretto. Even by the standards of the opera seria tradition, the piece is relentlessly static, the action is stilted and formal. And then there’s that corny business of the deus ex machina – literally a god who solves all the problems at the end of the show: not exactly a brilliant stroke of dramaturgy.

No problem with the music, though. In this relatively early composition (it premiered in 1781), Mozart’s music is as sublime as in any of his works. In fact, I found myself taking particular note of several quiet passages where the composer was giving the best bits to the wind instruments. One began to think that he had a special love for them. Elsewhere, I heard hints of what was to come in the master’s later works. Some of Elettra’s music, for instance, made me think of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflte. At one point, some serene music sounded like a harbinger of the magnificent "Soave sia il vento" in Cosi Fan Tutte. And there were strains of military music such as we find in several of Mozart’s operas.

The musicians in this production – especially the singers – did full justice to his work. Matthew Polenzani, in the title role, was splendid, as always. It struck me that Nadine Sierra, in the role of Ilia, has the perfect Mozart voice: young, bright, flexible, very clear. Let’s hope she doesn’t force her voice, making it wobbly in years to come, as has happened with many Mozart singers. I had no problem with Elza van den Heever’s singing as Elettra, but it didn’t seem to me necessary or suitable to make the character so ditzy. The only performer whose singing seemed a trifle iffy to me was mezzo soprano Alice Coote in the role of Idamante. For me, Ms. Coote, in the role of Cherubino, was the best singer in a production of The Marriage of Figaro that I attended at the Met some years ago. (Reviewed on DD page May 2/06). This time, though, it sounded to me, at first, as if she might be struggling with a cold. Towards the end of the show, however, her voice opened up to its full glory.

What nearly made me leave after the first act was the tiresome story. A king in peril at sea promises the gods that, if saved, he will sacrifice the first person he sees on reaching shore. Climbing out of the billowing waves, drenched and exhausted, who does our hero encounter first? You guessed it – his dearly beloved son! I can’t abide these corny plots with their overtones of biblical melodrama. What possible meaning could such nonsense have for us today? Oh, I know, there could be all sorts of Freudian implications if you wanted to go there – but I didn’t. I wanted to go home.

But I’m glad I didn’t. The intermission features redeemed the afternoon for me. Eric Owens, who struck me as a somewhat awkward host during a production of Otello in 2015, came across much better here. When he was interviewing the singers, he was able to establish a good rapport by sharing some of his own experiences with them. A feature about the follow spotlights took him up to a crowded aerie in the dome of the auditorium where he managed to make the fact that he had to consult his notes look natural and humorous.

One moment in the interviews with the singers got me thinking about how the Met has changed in the 21st century. Matthew Polenzani enthusiastically reported that he’d just discovered social media. This being a revelation of an exciting new world to him, he effusively burbled greetings to all his social network followers. Such a chummy expression of unbridled friendliness is a far cry from the Met of the old days, back when Milton Cross, the radio host of the Met’s Texaco broadcasts, used to intone solemnly at the end of every broadcast that the "great golden curtain" was coming down. Those were the days when an aura of mystery and of awe surrounded the opera house, the stars, and everything connected with them. Well, I guess the loss of the majesty and its replacement by accessibility is all for the best if it brings in new young opera-goers.

But the knock-out intermission feature for me was a documentary looking back at conductor James Levine’s forty years at the Met. Now that Maestro Levine is severely incapacitated, having to conduct from an electric wheel chair, it almost brought tears to the eyes to see him as a vigorous, healthy young man several decades ago. The scenes from the documentary that will remain forever fixed in my memory are the ones where he, at the piano, was accompaning Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman in separate rehearsal sessions. (I think the production they were preparing was Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.) It showed you why singers rhapsodize about working with Maestro Levine. When he was expressing his enthusiasm for a phrase that Jessye Norman had just sung, what the maestro’s face, and especially his eyes, were conveying to the singer was pure, unadulterated love.

 

A Love Story (Short Fiction) by Samantha Hunt, The New Yorker, May 22, 2017

Once in a while, a reader has the great pleasure of discovering a brand new voice in fiction – as in the case of this writer. Samantha Hunt writes with great humour and verve about being a wife and mother in the contemporary world. In this respect, she follows in the tradition of beloved humourists like Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck, but there’s a distinctively contemporary tone to Ms. Hunt’s writing, a wacky, in-your-face feel that makes her predecessors look almost prissy. There are some surrealistic aspects to this story – something about coyotes eating babies, for instance. Also, it’s hard to fit into the family context the narrator’s references to a group of drug dealers she used to belong to. But the author’s voice is so engaging that you don’t waste much time trying to figure out those puzzles.

Where she really hooked me was in the section where she’s trying to figure out why she and her husband aren’t having any sex. Maybe, she thinks, it’s because her husband is absent and she’s just imagining that he’s here: "It can be hard to tell with men, whether they are really here or not. Especially a man with a smartphone." The story goes on to reveal some deep, agonizing thoughts about motherhood that are all the more captivating because the narrator has convinced us that she’s such a clever, funny woman.

 

The Writer’s Process (Essay) by Hallie Cantor, The New Yorker, May 29, 2017

The surprising thing about this short piece is that it appears on the New Yorker’s "Shouts and Murmurs" page, the one that’s always devoted to humour. In terms of the information conveyed, there’s nothing funny about Ms. Cantor’s description of her day as a writer. It’s all perfectly sensible and reasonable. She observes the kinds of routines that any dedicated, professional writer would. While working, she doesn’t keep checking her smartphone: "I definitely don’t worry that if I take too long to text people back they’ll decide they hate me and never text me back." She doesn’t turn to sitcoms as a break from the stress of writing. She takes walks and meditates. What earns the essay a place on the magazine’s humour page is the droll tone. Ms. Cantor establishes that with her opening lines: "Hmm, what’s my process? Funny, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before." Her somewhat flippant attitude implies a gently satirical poke at many contemporary assumptions about the appropriate lifestyle, especially for a writer.

 

The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less (Philosophy/Lifestyle) by Emrys Westacott, 2016

As the old joke goes, the great thing about having Alzheimers is that you get to hide your own Easter eggs.

That came to mind when this book arrived on order from the library. It was a total surprise. I couldn’t remember ordering it; I had no idea who recommended it or how I’d heard about it. But it sounded like the kind of book I might aappreciate, so I delved into it gladly.

In this slim, elegant volume, Emrys Westacott, a professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, in Alfred, New York, looks at all the arguments for and against frugality. It probably doesn’t require a spoiler alert to say that, in general, he comes down on the side of a less materialistic, less consumerist lifestyle. The overall message of the book is that most of us would probably be happier and our world would be in better shape if we were less obsessed with acquiring stuff. But that’s not to say that Professor Westacott is advocating some sort of Spartan, monastic deprivation. He tries to be as fair as he can to the pros and cons when it comes to frugality. He’s never unmindful of human nature’s craving to amass possessions and he’s as indulgent towards it as he can be. According to most moralists, he says, insatiable pursuit in excess of what you need is "foolish and reprehensible." But he admits that determining what’s excessive isn’t simple.

The purpose of The Wisdom of Frugality is not to tell the reader to change his or her life. "Rather," Professor Westacott says, "the book is a philosophical essay, an extended reflection on a set of questions relating to the notions of frugality and simplicity..." His thorough treatment of the subject makes frequent reference to ancient philosophers, particularly Plato, Epicurus, Diogenes, the Stoics and Aristotle. Jesus and Buddha are mentioned. Moving onward through history, he touches on Thomas More, Rousseau, Thoreau, Emerson and John Maynard Keynes. Environmentalists and economists get their say as well.

The subtitle of the book hints at the author’s humour, but we don’t get much sense of his personality. A small glimmer of it comes in a statement such as: "....if we only ever listen to the world’s best orchestras, we risk impairing our capacity for enjoying less polished amateur performances (except, of course, when our eleven-year-old has the oboe solo)." One of the few personal comments struck a distinctly odd note to this reader. Professor Westacott speaks of the value of learning to appreciate more exotic foods "...as I did when I moved from Britain to Canada and for the first time had bacon and eggs drenched in maple syrup." Whose Canada was that? I’m wondering.

Perhaps it could be an inevitable consequence of the author’s profession that there’s not a lot of enthusiasm to the writing. More a musing tone: mulling over this-and-that, back and forth, constant corrections and qualifications, modifications and counter arguments. It’s as though the professor is so intellectually scrupulous that he can’t overlook any possible nuance to the subject.

At times, though, smidgens of advice make it look like this book could almost fit into the Self Help genre. In that vein, we’re told that it’s "wise to avoid overindulging a taste for novelty and variety." The professor also wants us to know that it’s not a good idea to get into serious debt over wedding gifts. Also on the subject of gifts, the professor says we should think of how lavishing them on our kids might affect their characters.

Other tidbits of psychology come up. "We relish the slick new cell phone for a short while," says Professor Westacott, "but fairly soon it is simply a tool we take for granted, giving us no more pleasure than our clunky old one." He notes that the problem with second hand gifts is that a gift is supposed to signify respect or affection; if the gift doesn’t cost much, what does that say about the respect and/or affection? A more in-depth excursion into psychology has this to say:

"....common sense still suggests that some experience of deprivation strengthens our ability to cope with adversity, and that this is a good quality to possess even if we are unlikely to find ourselves destitute. For accustoming oneself to occasional deprivations does more than just prepare one for serious setbacks such as sudden poverty. By injecting a little extra steel into the soul, it can perhaps also help one to cope more cheerfully with the sort of smaller discomforts, disappointments and setbacks that punctuate the days and weeks of everyone..."

But readers who might find such insights helpful could be put off by the book’s somewhat ponderous writing style. Take these long sentences:

But in the current political climate in the United States and most other large, advanced capitalist countries, few of those roaming the corridors of power seem willing to advocate the level of government intervention in the economy that would be required to create an environment in which living simply but not in poverty is a viable option for all.

The minimum wage, working hours and conditions, public transport, and the cost of essentials like housing, health care and education are all aspects of the system we live in that government could do something about to make simple living easier to achieve for those who want it.

In the United States, for instance, there is free universal education from ages six to seventeen, but the high cost of housing, day care, health care, and college makes it difficult for people to live on little without anxiety and a dispiriting sense of being at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, this latter feeling being reinforced by the many visible indicators of inequality.

As those statements suggest, it’s not hard to see where Professor Westacott lies on the left/right political spectrum, but he’s not preachy or strident about it. He gives serious consideration, for instance, to the question of whether simpler life styles would ruin the economy. He says the solution would be more government intervention: for new training, for adequate health coverage, for good pensions and childcare. This would solve the problem of widespread unemployment following a drop in consumer demand. In countries where these measures have been tried, he says, they’re working well – except in the opinion of critics who are ideologically opposed to any such admission. The objections to a shorter work week are political, not economic, says Professor Westacott; there’s lots of work to be done, lots of food for everybody.

Professor Westacott notes wryly that if frugal sages like Socrates and Seneca could see our world today, they "would not think their antimaterialistic ideas had triumphed." And yet, not every philosopher espoused frugality. Voltaire actually enthused about luxury. The professor himself acknowledges the value of a quality that might be seen as the opposite of frugality: extravagance. We’re invited to think of the marvels that resulted from lavish expenditures by the de Medici, by Mozart’s and Haydn’s patrons, by the grandees who funded the construction of places like Blenheim Palace: "Much of the time we queue up and pay good money to admire the results of some long-dead fat cat’s extravagance: palaces, castles, tombs, temples..."

Ultimately, Professor Westacott recognizes that the tension between frugality and its opposite will probably never be resolved: "It seems that our culture is still torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable character trait that bespeaks false values and encourages unethical conduct." Still, he maintains that the life of frugal simplicity "remains one of the surest paths to contentment, and there are good reasons to associate it with wisdom."

 

The Gods of Guilt (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2013

In this installment of the "Lincoln Lawyer" series, Mickey Haller (the lawyer whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln town car) takes on the defense of a pimp accused of murdering one of the prostitutes who works under his supervision. You might not think Haller would take on such a case – especially given the fact that the murdered woman happened to be a friend whom he’d once helped and who, he thought, had found a better life for herself. Although Haller would like to avenge his friend, he doesn’t believe this pimp could have killed her. For one thing, he doesn’t fit the usual mould. He’s a gay man who "manages" his women by running their websites and arranging their assignments. He does admit that he got violent with the murdered woman when she refused to pay him his share of an assignation, claiming that the customer never showed up. As Haller sees it, though, that altercation didn’t amount to his client’s being the murderer. Hence, his need to find out who was.

Following the excitement and novelty of the first Lincoln Laywer mystery, perhaps it’s inevitable that subsequent episodes would seem a bit tame by comparison – as does this one. A lot of legal detail here – about subpoena’s, for instance, and court procedures – can be somewhat tricky to follow. A couple of characters respond to Haller in ways that are too blatantly hostile. I realize that authors do this sort of thing because it ups the drama quotient of a book but it interferes with plausibility when the antagonism seems to go beyond what would be expected of people in these situations. And speaking of such responses, we find here that Haller is coping with a daughter’s resentment about his professional choices, in much the same way that Harry Bosch is in the last of Mr. Connelly’s Bosh novels that I read – The Crossing (reviewed on DD page dated Feb 9/17). Isn't the author aware of this rather obvious borrowing from his own work? And there are times when The Gods of Guilt looks like it’s going to fall into the pattern that annoys me in many contemporary mysteries: delving into the past for more and more complicated connections to explain what happened at the forefront of the action. In this instance, however, those details don’t eventually prove too hard to keep track of.

What matters in these Lincoln books, though, is the trial. That’s where Mr. Connelly shows the brilliance of his writing most vividly. The trial that takes up the last third of this book is no exception. The wiles and cunning, the devious psychological tricks exercised by Mickey Haller in order to get the verdict he wants from a jury make you shudder even as you try to remember that he’s doing it all in the cause of freeing a man whom he believes to have been unjustly accused.

 

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island (Travelogue) by Bill Bryson, 2015

You can generally rely on Bill Bryson’s books to provide pleasant diversion when your brain needs a rest from more demanding fare. This one serves the purpose admirably. It comes as a twentieth anniversary follow-up to Mr. Bryson’s previous travelogue about England: Notes from a Small Island. This time, he sets himself the task of following a somewhat haphazard route from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, with spontaneous detours into byways that catch his interest. En route, Mr. Bryson often has occasion to lament the state of decline in many venues. Several village and towns that were once thriving, now feature boarded-up shops in cheerless streets. On the other hand, he magnanimously acknowledges improvements in some places: Oxford, for instance, which came in for severe criticism in Notes from a Small Island. And he does manage to find plenty of charming spots to restore his good spirits.

Mr. Bryson’s humour is, thankfully, in full flight here. Regarding the extremely slow service in one eatery, he responds to the server’s asking whether he’d like a dessert: "I declined, since it appeared unlikely that I would live that long." We get several dollops of self-deprecation, as in: "I’m a generous soul – anyone will tell you that except for those who know me fairly well..." His send-up of the so-called "system" for the numbering of England’s roads is hilarious. As we know from his previous books, his humour can be at its best in the scathingly mordant mode. A sign on a closed store inviting potential customers to visit the company’s store in Morecambe prompts this response: "When you are invited to go to Morecambe for a better shopping experience, you know you have touched bottom."

One of the funniest pieces in the book, though, is a re-capitulation of an experience the author had when he was travelling in England as a younger man. Two cordial ladies who had offered him a lift kept urging him to admit to something he didn’t like about Britain. When, after demurring at some length, he finally allowed that he wasn’t keen on the way the English cooked bacon (too greasy), his hosts overflowed with expostulations at such an extraordinary and unbelievable thing as someone’s objection to British bacon. (We know that there’s a certain amount of re-creation of the dialogue in these scenarios; the author couldn’t be reporting them verbatim. But never mind, his re-construction serves the book’s purpose as entertainment.)

While his prevailing persona is that of the wiseguy on the lookout for the risible aspects of humanity, he occasionally sets the sarcasm aside and admits to honest awe, as when he’s marvelling over some particularly impressive museum or regaling us with the astounding techniques involved in the building of medieval cathedrals. Stonehenge is one of the places that brings out his humble appreciation of the mystery of human achievement.

I did, however, notice that Mr. Bryson does have a tendency to get tetchy at times: when he’s encountering an obdurate civil servant, for example, or a fast food server who’s unthinkingly following the script that goes with his job. I don’t remember this irritable tendency so much in Mr. Bryson’s earlier writing. Does my noticing it have something to do with the fact that he’s getting older? (Or that I am?) Mind you, he does occasionally acknowledge this character flaw. About one kerfuffle, he says: "Well, maybe I did bitch inwardly just a little, but I didn’t say anything grumbly to anyone and that is surely a mark of progress."

His diction in this book raised some questions for me. He lets himself lapse into vulgar language fairly often, usually when he’s peeved about something. This is not the way I remember Bill Bryson; it strikes me that it’s not what most of his fond readers would expect of him. Maybe his resorting to crude slang is a way of saying: Get with it folks, the world is changing and we’ve all got to sound more contemporary! Also in the matter of word choice, there’s an over-reliance on the word ‘lovely’ in its various forms. Once it caught my attention, I counted some twenty-five instances within about 200 pages. But maybe we can forgive that kind of thing when someone’s rhapsodizing about things in a conversational way? In any case, I can well imagine the devastating jibe that Mr. Bryson would aim at the kind of reader who would stoop to such picayune criticism! Since he makes something of an issue of the niceties of language, however, I can’t help pointing out one problem. He spends about two and a half pages railing about the improper use of English, but we find this sentence twenty-five pages later: "They were all dressed for work, but none of them were working either, as far as I could tell." Looks to me like a case for the admonition about people who live in glass houses.

Whatever the peevish outbursts in the book, the crotchety geezer doesn’t dominate the proceedings. There’s enough of the bonvivant in evidence to make it a pleasure to accompany him on his travels. The author’s enjoyment of the British keeps the book afloat. "They have the ability to get deep and lasting pleasure out of practically nothing at all," he says. Citing the fact that Britain has 108 steam railways run by 18,500 volunteers, he notes that "there are thousands of men in Britain who will never need Viagra as long as there are steam trains in operation."

 

Plenty (Playscript) by David Hare, 1978

In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s "Writers & Company" a few months ago, David Hare came across as a charming fellow. It struck me that I’d never seen any plays by this man who could be considered the pre-eminent British playwright of his generation. Since there weren’t any productions of his plays on offer at the moment, it seemed that the best way to familiarize myself with his work was to look into the script of Plenty, probably Mr. Hare’s most famous play.

If I were a dramaturge at some theatre and this script had landed on my desk – from an unknown and untried source – I’d have said: This person doesn’t know how to write a play. This is not a script that can be produced satisfactorily.

Why?

Because you can’t tell what the play’s about. It’s a collection of scenes but you don’t know why you’re watching them. You can’t find a statement of theme. Granted, a certain woman, Susan Traherne, appears in all the scenes but there is nothing, other than her presence, that links one scene to another. A popular way of assessing a play, film or novel these days is to ask whether there is a "thread running through" the work. That line of inquiry has become something of a clich, but it quite accurately nails what’s wrong with this piece, as I see it. There’s nothing in any one scene that gives you a reason to feel that you should stay to watch the next scene.

Which is not to say that the scenes, in themselves, aren’t interesting. They all (a total of about twelve of them) present interesting situations. There are vivid, recognizable characters. What they’re involved in tends to be intriguing. The form of dialogue is highly realistic, rather than formally dramatic. People tend to blurt out inchoate remarks, to talk over each other, to ignore each other’s comments, to give answers that have nothing to do with the questions asked. This makes you feel that you’re watching ordinary people interacting, not actors on stage. As in the work of Harold Pinter, gaps in speech become almost as important as the speeches themselves. I can readily appreciate that such aspects of the script would catch the attention of theatre people in the 1970s.

But what are these actors talking about and where is this leading? A lot of the time, you have no idea. Although each scene has a kind of enigmatic appeal, this isn’t like Beckett or Ionesco, where you know you’re not supposed to understand the literal sense of things, where the absurdity makes a kind of sense. Here there seems to be something going on that you should understand but you can’t.

After reading the whole script twice – and certain scenes several times – I began to get the drift. The play is about Susan Traherne’s evolution from an idealistic resistance fighter in the Second World War, to the point where she becomes an unhinged, middle-aged woman. Some of the disparate situations in which the play shows her include: posing as the wife of a man who has died suddenly; trying to get a man to impregnate her; arguing with the head honcho of the diplomatic corps for a better position for her husband; having a fling with a French resistance fighter she’d known briefly in the war; diffidently providing money for a young woman’s abortion; freaking out at a gathering of upper class socialites.

Gradually you realize that her deterioration is apparently meant to say something about the decline of England after its glorious war years. People talk about a plentiful, rich future that clearly hasn’t come to pass, at least not in a wholesome, satisfying way. We get allusions to fiascos like the Suez crisis. Things have gone to pot. Susan’s friend, Alice, who is sort of a Bohemian, talks about sexual adventures and dresses in a man’s clothes. Some pertinent social commentary comes up. In a speech about marriage, for instance, Susan points out that people settle for comfortable lives and boring sex, just for the sake of having children. She wants to have a child without that sort of compromise. In other ways, though, she has compromised: prostituting her talents to write advertising copy.

Maybe all this speaks to themes that were a lot more top-of-mind for British audiences in 1978 than they are to a Canadian in 2017. On re-reading, a better sense of the British references, the culture, the topicality of it and the points of some of the jokes start to emerge. If you know at the outset that this is going to be a study of the arc of one woman’s character changes through a couple of decades and that this is going to somehow mirror changes in society and in England in particular, then you can settle in for the duration and I have no doubt that it can be a rewarding theatrical exprience.

But I cannot, no matter how hard I try, make any sense of the opening scene. It's actually the end of the story, but, by means of chronological wizzardry, it comes before we flash back to Susan’s past. Here, she’s handing over the keys of her house to her friend, Alice, who’s going to turn it into a home for unwed mothers. But there’s a naked man covered with dried blood lying downstage. Alice toys with his penis. The man, we discover, is Susan’s husband. She’s leaving him. But why is he naked? Why the blood?

Would somebody who knows this play please tell me!

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com