Dilettante's Diary

Aug 9/18

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
OCTOBER 3, 2018
Sept 9/18
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Jan15/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.
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: Into the Gray Zone (Science), Displaced (Short Fiction), When Breath Becomes Air (Memoir), No Middle Name (Mystery/Thriller), Nevertheless (Memoir), Presumed Innocent (Mystery)

Into the Gray Zone (Science) by Adrian Owen, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a science book that’s a page-turner. And what’s even more rare is a science book where the science is explained cogently and coherently for the lay reader, without any bafflegab or confusion. And, even more exceptional, a science book in which the writer is a great story-teller.

Amazingly, Into the Gray Zone has all that going for it. Not to mention the fact that the science discussed is riveting!

Adrian Owen is a neuroscientist, based now at Western University, in London, Ontario, but his origins are British. As a young neuropsychologist, he was studying the relationship of behaviour and the brain. For the most part, this involved dealing with patients who’d suffered brain damage. But he gradually realized that he didn’t want to spend his life caring for people in a traditional medical career. "I’d never wanted to be a physician, listening to people’s ailments and dishing out medication according to standard protocols. I wanted to try to understand the mysteries of the way our minds work and perhaps discover new approaches to treatment and cures."

In the early stages of Professor Owen’s research, he studied reactions in the brains of people in the vegetative state when emotionally loaded words were spoken to them or when they were shown photos of familiar paintings. PET scans showed that their brains were responding in exactly the same way as the brains of people whose brains had not been damaged. That was exciting but Professor Owen realized that, to show that these patients were truly aware, it would be necessary to show their brains responding to some sort of commands or instructions. He devised an ingenious way of testing this.

It turns out that different parts of our brains "light up" (so to speak) when different kinds of thought processes are going on. The two processes that Professor Owen chose for his test were thinking about playing a game of tennis and thinking about walking through the rooms of your home. These two kinds of thoughts produced very different kinds of signals that could be read in the fMRI. So Professor Owen prepared a suitable list of questions and instructed the patients in vegetative state to think about playing tennis if the answer was ‘yes’ and walking through their home if the answer was ‘no.’ Amazingly, the tests showed that the patients were giving the right answers. That appears to be incontrovertible proof of the fact that these patients were aware, that they were still living persons imprisoned inside their bodies.

Even so, some critics objected that these responses to instructions could be automatic. Maybe the brain just goes into certain gymnastics when it hears the words "playing tennis." To disprove that, Professor Owen had some volunteers submit to a test in the fMRI where they would be told to imagine playing tennis, among other things. But beforehand, they had been told to ignore the instructions that would be given. The result when the ‘tennis’ command was given: no lighting up in that part of the brain. Clearly, then, the brain didn’t automatically respond to such commands without a conscious decision indicating awareness on the part of the subject.

Atlthough he’s opted for hard science, Professor Owen hasn’t completely lost the physician’s caring attitude. About one patient he’d tested, he asked himself: "Did we find a way to bring her back into our world? Did our scan and the flurry of attention it generated locally somehow contribute to her recovery?" He asks whether his team’s scans of two women made "people treat them differently and somehow, in other ways we weren’t aware of, help them get better?"

He also worries that maybe his tests on one patient were tantalizing but ultimately disappointing in that they couldn’t lead to any therapeutic results. "Like a castaway stranded on a desert island, were we the ship that had just passed by in the far distance, leaving him frustrated and confused? Had we made his situation worse by adding to his misery? I tried not to think about it."

Then came the time to ask a patient who had shown awareness whether or not he was in pain:

"It was time to do something that might actually benefit one of our patients, time to do the right thing. If Scott was in pain, we needed to give him the opportunity to tell us that, and if so, we needed to do something to help him." The answer from the test: "Scott had told us, ‘No I am not in pain.’"

How about an even more difficult question: should they ask a patient whether or not he wanted to die? (All these procedures had to be cleared after rigorous consideration by an ethics committee.) With considerable trepidation, Professor Owen’s team put the question to the patient. The scan – perhaps fortunately – could not show a definite answer. Professor Owen feels that’s because the question was too complicated to allow for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Let’s face it, there are a lot of factors to weigh when any of us is in a crisis situation where such a question might come to mind; it wouldn’t be easy to come up with a definite answer.

And Professor Owen makes the cautionary note that most of us could change our minds on the question from day to day. That’s why he’s not in favour of putting this question to patients in a vegetative state as if the answer on any given day could provide clear guidance to family and physicians. In any case, he cites a study of patients with "locked in" syndrome – i.e. conscious people who were only able to communicate by blinking or vertically moving their eyes. Seventy-two percent of those who responded to a questionnaire reported that they were happy.

Perhaps the most surprising of the cases Professor Owen tested was that of a young man for whom the scans didn’t produce any evidence of awareness. A few months later, though, one of Professor Owen’s team members phoned the man’s mother to ask how he was doing. She invited the doctor to ask her son himself. He had recovered the ability to speak, was learning to walk again and – most astonishingly – remembered everything about his experience with the fMRI scan which hadn’t been able to detect any sign of awareness. The team brought him back and subjected him to a number of carefully prepared questions about what had been going on – the circumstances and conditions – at the time of the scan. The young man answered them all perfectly. He told them, moreover, that he had been very frightened at the time because the team members had not explained carefully enough what was going on. Apparently, even they had become a bit blas about dealing with patients in the vegetative state, to the point that they thought any detailed explanation would be futile.

In spite of Professor Owen’s startling findings, they don’t apply to all cases. As of 2012, he and his team had found that only about 20 percent of people in a vegetative state could change their pattern of brain activity to indicate that they were actually conscious and aware. Still, he’s hoping that percentage could rise. What’s required is a simpler method of detecting consciousness. The trouble is that the tests he’s been using require a patient to "report" that he or she is conscious. But could there be patients who are conscious but lack the cognitive resources to report that they are. One attempt to deal with this problem was to show a patient named Jeff an Alfred Hitchcock movie: the patient’s brain lit up exactly the ways an undamaged brain would according to whether it was seeing a close up, a gun shot, a car chase or whatever.

Were these just automatic brain responses, having little bearing on whether or not a patient was experiencing what was happening on screen? No, says Professor Owen, because of the theory of mind. This means that to appreciate a movie – to experience it as any of us would – you have to be able to attribute mental states to other beings and to understand that they might have beliefs, desires, intentions and perspectives that are different from your own. And appreciating a movie involves many other cognitive processes that are indicative of consciousness. For instance, you have to understand what a gun can do. Jeff’s responses to the movie were exactly those that were seen in the undamaged brains of volunteers. Such responses, then, could be used to infer conscious awareness in physically nonresponsive patients without any need for self-report.

In conclusion, Professor Owen notes that he has stopped using the word ‘recovery’ when referring to his work because it can mean so many different things. For the lucky few, it can mean return to normal life. For others, it means a little bit more responsiveness, "a few steps up the ladder, out of the abyss." Still, his work touches on the most basic value of our lives: "The quest to uncover the ubiquitous nature of consciousness inevitably returns to the many ways that each of us is unique. We each contain whole worlds inside our heads, worlds that are built on a lifetime of experience. And for the most part, those worlds are ours alone."

 

Displaced (Short Fiction) by Richard Ford, The New Yorker, August 6 & 13, 2018

In a piece like this, it's hard to tell what's autobiographical and what isn't. The unnamed narrator is a teenage boy whose father has recently died. The boy's relationship with his mother is developing in a special, close way. We know that's what Richard Ford's life was like at one time. As for the rest of the story, who knows?

The other kids don't quite know how to deal with the narrator; he feels like something of an alien among them. But then he strikes up a friendship with Niall, an Irish lad who has moved in across the street. A little older than the narrator, Niall's a charmer with a bit of a wild side. His family is new to the US and he seems to have lots of worldly experience.

What I like most about the story is that the narrator has such a thoughtful, temperate response to something that happens, the one big event in the story. It's something that we might expect would merit a more outraged response in our day. But the narrator shows that people can take things in and absorb them in their own way, that teens can be more nuanced in their thinking than we might give them credit for.

 

When Breath Becomes Air (Memoir) by Paul Kalanithi, 2016

A doctor decides to tell us, from his own experience, what it feels like to be dying: how could I not read that? Given that my library copy of this New York Times best-seller is the 30th printing, a lot of people must have responded the way I have.

At the age of thirty-six, when he was just finishing his training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi discovered that he had stage IV lung cancer. For the next twenty-two months, he struggled through ups and downs of health and mood. In whatever quiet moments he could find in the midst of all that chaos, he wrote about what was happening to him. If his hopes for his medical career and his family life were going to be dashed, he wanted, at least, to leave behind a record of his experience that might provide guidance and inspiration to people in their own difficulties.

The book opens with Doctor Kalanithi and his wife Lucy, also a doctor (an internist), sitting on his hospital bed, trying to take in the devastating diagnosis he’s just received. The first chapter describes the horror of the following months. The second chapter looks back on Doctor Kalanithi’s decision to become a doctor. Referring to himself as a "second generation Indian," he describes his medical studies. In that world, we get the familiar picture of the long hours of work, the lack of sleep, along with the exhilaration and the satisfaction. Doctor Kalanithi doesn’t skimp on the camaraderie, even the competition, among his fellow students. They all had visions of medical glory dancing in their eyes. One taste of their gallows humour comes when a colleague was asking Doctor Kalanithi to assess a trauma victim’s cognitive function. Doctor Kalanithi replied: "Well, he could still be a senator but only from a small state." That reference became a kind of code for judging the severity of a person’s brain injury: "Is he a Wyoming or a California?"

But Doctor Kalanithi’s tendency to take things deeply and seriously comes through vividly in his thoughts about his decision to become a neurosurgeon:

Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity, and death. Concomitant with the enormous responsibilities they shouldered, neurosurgeons were also masters of many fields: neurosurgery, ICU medicine, neurology, radiology...[my elipsis] ... perhaps, I too, could join the ranks of these polymaths who strode into the densest thicket of emotional, scientific, and spiritual problems and found, or carved, ways out.

He repeatedly mentions that what was important to him was not just technical expertise, but relationships: "As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness." The physician’s duty, he says, is not to stave off death "but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence."

After aiming so high in his profession, winning numerous awards and being considered for prestigious appointments, came the reckoning with his own diagnosis. He was lost for a while, knocked down by fatigue, weakness and by the damage to his sense of himself as an up-and-coming physician.

Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.

The irony of his situation isn’t lost on him:

Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? What better way to understand it than to live it? But I’d had no idea how hard it would be, how much terrain I would have to explore, map, settle... [my elipsis] ... I hadn’t expected the prospect of facing my own mortality to be so disorienting, so dislocating.

It soon appears, though, that the treatments (chemo mostly) are working well; he’s buoyed up by every scan that shows that the tumours have either shrunk, or at least haven’t grown. Realizing that neurosurgery is the thing that matters most to him, he forces himself back into the operating room, at first on a much reduced schedule, but gradually taking on more work and responsibility. After agonizing over the rights and wrongs of the decision, he and Lucy decide to try to have a child. In due course, their daughter Cady is born.

By then, Doctor Kalanithi has only a few months left to live. One of the most significant turning points for him comes at the moment when he finally tells his doctor that he’s willing to submit to being her patient and stop trying to be involved in the doctoring of his own case. It was hard to accept the transition from the doctor who feels like an agent to the patient who feels like an object. Interestingly, the one point on which his doctor opposed him was that she refused to discuss with him the Kaplan-Meier survival curve which shows how long patients typically survive after treatment.

One way in which Doctor Kalanithi’s attitude strikes a note quite different from much of the popular thinking on cancer is that he refuses to think of it as a "battle" that the patient is determined to "win." While acknowledging that diseases like his might eventually be curable, he faced the reality that his cancer would probably kill him before long. So he spent as much time as he could with Lucy and Cady and his extended family. And he hurried to finish writing his memoir.

It’s an engrossing little book (just 223 small pages). I sped through it in a couple of hours and a bit. However, I don’t find it the masterpiece that some people claim it to be. An introduction by Abraham Verghese, the renowned physician and writer, speaks of the book as if every line were written in gold. He says it’s reminiscent of the great Religio Medici written by Thomas Browne in 1642. Much is made of Doctor Kalanithi’s extensive knowledge of and love for English literature. The point is made that he could have been an English prof. I find some of the literary allusions and quotes a bit showy, however, a bit obtrusive in an erudite way.

True, some passages of Doctor Kalanithi’s work are deeply moving, as, for instance, his final paragraph which, addressed to his daughter, tells her what joy she brought to a dying man’s final days. But not all of the writing is so impressive. It seems to lack something of the nitty-gritty of life as we know it. It might seem odd to say that about a book in which a man describes the gradual disintegration of his body. But it somehow feels that the story is taking place mostly in his head. Perhaps that’s because the book lacks the kind of detail that a more creative writer uses to make people and places real. Doctor Kalanithi isn’t that kind of writer.

Fair enough. He’s more of an essayist. Even so, I find the book ultra-cerebral at times. Referring to his love of literature and his recourse to it often throughout his life, he says:

I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literature and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language.

It can be difficult at times to discern just what Doctor Kalanithi is getting at. In one reverie he says "I recalled Henry Adams trying to compare the scientific force of the combustion engine and the existential force of the Virgin Mary." Huh? He takes a few pages to describe why he came back to Christianity after a period of "ironclad atheism." In this realm, his thoughts become slippery but I think I get the gist of them. At risk of over-simplifying, his conclusion would be something like this: science and technology help our lives in tremendous ways but they can’t account for the things that make our lives most human: "hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue." He believes you need a kind of religion – or metaphysics or faith – to address these values.

The twenty-four-page epilogue by Lucy, Doctor Kalanithi’s wife, is welcome in that it helps to show how he managed to work on this book in his debilitated condition. It also helps to complete the story by explaining how the end finally came for Doctor Kalanithi. But Lucy tells us over and over what a wonderful person Doctor Kalanithi was. A somewhat shorter note from her would have been more effective. Understandably, in the case of a man like Doctor Kalanithi, whose brilliant career prospects were tragically thwarted, his friends and family would like to attest to the fact that he did leave behind something truly notable such as this book. To my mind, the book speaks well enough for itself without the puffery.

 

No Middle Name (Mystery/Thriller) by Lee Child, 2017

A new Jack Reacher book is always welcome, but this one might not have found its way home with me if I’d realized it was a collection of short stories. Generally, I prefer a book-length tale that can keep me reading for several evenings (and, just as importantly, obsessing about it during the days). However, these Reacher stories proved, for the most part, to be intriguing and entertaining.

The dates of the copyrights for the twelve stories range from 2009 to 2017, but there’s no indication as to whether they were originally published elsewhere. Some of them deal with Reacher’s time in the military. Some of them, on the other hand, feature the Reacher who is the lone soldier of fortune. One story shows Reacher as a thirteen-year-old living on the military base in Okinawa where his father is stationed. Another episode has Reacher as a strapping sixteen-year-old exploring Manhattan on his own.

Overall, this collection makes a fascinating study of Lee Child’s astounding narrative skills. Every story engages you but they all do it in different ways. In one story, we know from the outset who the murderer is; it’s just a question of how Reacher will find out and what he will do about it. Another story is narrated in the first person by a young female detective in her first day on the job; she’s interviewing Reacher in the hospital after his encounter with some thugs who have been running a protection racket that he happened to stumble on in a small town. As you might suspect, the situation in this story does not turn out to be what it first appeared to be. One of the most brilliant stories in that respect is the first one, "Too Much Time," in which Reacher intervenes as the good citizen in a purse snatching incident but it’s not long before he figures out that what was happening wasn’t the way it looked. Occasionally, a reader may be a bit slower to pick up on all the nuances of Reacher’s explanations – on the denouements, so to speak – but usually the general thrust of them is clear enough.

Surprisingly, in some of the stories there isn’t actually any mystery, or only a small element of it. We may get, for instance, some situations where Reacher performs an act of kindness or bravery in unusual circumstances. In a couple of cases, Reacher acts as judge and jury, deciding that the best interests of justice lie in his letting a culprit escape unscathed. In one story, Reacher intervenes in an effort to prevent someone’s suicide. The fact that Reacher is unsuccessful leaves a bleak existential feeling.

The one story that didn’t work for me was the one about Reacher as a thirteen-year-old. It’s a worthy experiment on Lee Child’s part to try to show us how the character that we know so well emerged from the early indicators. It’s clear that Reacher learned early on to stand up for himself against bullies and to use his considerable brain power to thwart them. But I found it impossible to believe that any thirteen-year-old could have such a preternatural ability to see through adults and to understand their motives the way this kid does. His speech and his thoughts just don’t sound like those of a thirteen-year-old.

However, many of Reacher’s other well-known traits show up in the various stories. We get his extraordinary ability for calculating things like timing and physical forces. And then there’s his penchant for violence. He warns one bully that he has a rule: if somebody pulls a knife on him, he’ll break the guy’s arms. Of that rule he says: "It’s completely inflexible, I’m afraid. I can’t make an exception just because you’re a moron." As in that case, most of the stories include some very brutal action on Reacher’s part that I found hard to read. Is that because these incidents stand out more starkly in a short story than in a novel?

The sass and the wit are already on display in the seventeen-year-old roaming Manhattan. When a man who’s been abusing a woman on the street tells Reacher to get lost, Reacher responds: "Who died and made you mayor?" Later in his life, when the female detective is interviewing the adult Reacher in hospital, she says that she’ll get her butt kicked if he doesn’t answer her questions. He says that would be a shame because "it’s a very cute butt." Whereupon, the woman has the thought that such a remark would have got him sensitivity training if he were on the job, but she doesn’t take offence. His wry, laconic tendency comes in a situation where he’s given the assignment of trying to flirt with four women, in the hopes that a suspect in a certain crime will reveal herself by resisting him more emphatically than the others. "I’m not sure I could tell the difference," Reacher says. "It always feels about the same to me." When an officious cop accuses Reacher of being unpleasant, Reacher says: "Not yet. You’ll notice the difference."

A little treat for readers of a certain nationality comes in a story about Reacher’s adventures in Northern Maine, near the New Brunswick border. When somebody raises suspicions about some people who have given Reacher a ride, he protests: "They’re Canadians, for God’s sake." He follows it up with: "Nicest people in the world. Almost as good as being Swiss."

 

Nevertheless (Memoir) by Alec Baldwin, 2017

My first thought on seeing this book: I don’t need to read the bragging, the gossip and the scuttlebutt from yet another Hollywood star!

On opening the book, though, I found the author lying on a bed beside a woman who seems to be in extremis, bottles of pills toppled over in a basket on the bedside table and the rest of the room a mess of laundry spilling over shabby furniture. Was this the death bed of some forsaken woman of ill repute? No. Turns out, this is the author’s mother taking a nap. He’s just nine years old and he’s trying to figure out what brought her to this sorry state.

That scenario was a lot more interesting – and better written – than I was expecting.

It’s not long in the reading before we find out what the mother’s problem was. Residing in the town of Massapequa, on the south shore of Long Island, she was worn out from trying to raise six kids in a household that was constantly struggling for money. Her husband, Alec’s father, was a dedicated high school teacher of economics and US history but his salary was never enough to cover the family’s needs. And the parents’ marriage was disintegrating. It seems that they had few interests in common and little communication with each other. The dad eventually moved out, sleeping for a while in the faculty lounge at the school, until he moved in with a young female teacher who’d been a student of his.

In spite of the rift between his parents, Mr. Baldwin describes a fairly typical growing up in a lower middle-class family. Lots of shenanigans and mischief with his three brothers and two sisters. Young Alec (his name actually was Xander, or Xan for short; Alec came with his professional billing) did well enough in school, but not spectacularly well. At George Washington University in DC, he was aiming, briefly, towards a law career; then, on a whim, he auditioned for and was accepted into a theatre program at New York University. His first professional acting gig – on the soap opera The Doctors – came because a woman connected with the show spotted him working as a waiter in a health club and thought he might be a suitable candidate for a part that was being cast.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of criticizing a book for not being what it’s not intended to be but I do find it odd that Mr. Baldwin says so little about the Catholic awspect of his upbringing. For many of us, that had made an indelible mark on our selves. Among the few references to the subject, Mr. Baldwin tells about being asked to recite the "Hail Mary" for a national radio audience when his dad was taking him into St. Patrick’s cathedral to pay respects to the remains of Bobby Kennedy. Much later in the book, Mr. Baldwin mentions the possibility that God might have had something to do with bringing about his second marriage (Mr. Baldwin’s, not God’s). And he speaks of lighting a candle every night and whispering a prayer for his first daughter, Ireland. He also mentions a relationship with God in the context of being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. So I guess the author takes it for granted that his Catholic upbringing remains in the back of his persona

The other subject Mr. Baldwin doesn’t say much about is his developing sexuality as a young person. For many, that can be a very fraught experience, especially in the Catholic context. Mr. Baldwin does bring the two subjects together when he says that he had considered going into the priesthood but the sight of Miss Cebu, his sixth grade teacher, convinced him that he wasn’t cut out for celibacy. He also makes one reference to puberty, as a possible cause of his not remembering much from that time. Perhaps he wants the reader to assume that his discovery of sex went pretty much the same as for any other straight male.

In his early years as an actor, however, some of the people that Mr. Baldwin most admired and respected were gay actors who mentored him. He makes it clear that he truly loved them – in a way that sounds positively romantic and starry-eyed. He enjoyed spending weekends on Fire Island with them (although he always took along a girlfriend as a kind of safeguard). Much as he loved the gay men he looked up to, he could never imagine himself participating in gay sex. Towards the end of the book, he muses: "I was never sexually attracted to men, but who knows? If I was braver, less hung up by what I was raised to believe about sex." Mr. Baldwin doesn’t finish that suggestion introduced by the conditional "If" but he seems to be wondering about the possibility of some gay interaction if he hadn’t been so protective of his sense of his masculinity.

Mr. Baldwin’s masculine image comes through strong and clear in lots of incidents of physical violence. In one passage, he provides a list of all the people he’s punched (mostly annoying paparazzi). You get the impression of somebody who, despite whatever culture and sophistication he has picked up, remains something of an Irish street fighter. All his emotions run close to the surface, it appears. He often mentions crying about something; it could be a sobbing session over the battle for custody of his first daughter or it could be tears of joy, as when he finds out that Anthony Hopkins has been cast opposite him in a movie or when Barack Obama first wins the presidency. And he admits that he goes to the movies to get his heart broken.

And yet, there isn’t a lot of emotion in the passages where he doesn’t hesitate to speak negatively about people he’s encountered throughout his career. A director can be "the most unpleasant person I’ve worked with." The moguls at a certain studio are "assholes." A theatre critic’s work is "random, uninformed snark." Mr. Baldwin sees judges "posing with a mock certainty and air of control when, in reality, they are pawns in a game controlled by big law firms seeking profits." He somehow manages to make these statements in a fairly neutral tone, as if he’s just citing facts. I think he gets away with it because there isn’t a sense of vitriol in most cases; you don’t get the feeling that he’s out to vent his fury on enemies.

Not at first.

Later in the book, however, the pages steam up with his anger. Regarding the suit brought against Kim Bassinger, his first wife, for walking away from a contract, he says the plaintiff’s attorney was "one of the most contemptible people I have ever encountered, a cartoon rendering of the rapacious litigator, representing everything that I believe is exploitative and unfair about our civil system." The judge in the case was, according to Mr. Baldwin, "a disgrace to the bench." One case, an attempt to nail him legally for an imagined slur, was nothing but "douchebaggery." Following one crisis, he talks about walking around in a suicidal depression and wanting to find certain people "and beat them to death."

And you can feel the strain as he tries to speak fairly of Ms. Bassinger without falling into an out-and-out diatribe on her faults as he sees them. He’s honest about the infamous voicemail to his daughter that got him into so much trouble; he recognizes that he brought it all on himself in a moment of anger but he expresses – understandably – some resentment at the way the media and the public hounded him for that lapse.

The lowest point of his life, though, had come much earlier. It’s an episode that he doesn’t like talking about he says, but it brings out some of his best writing. Taking us to a hotel room one night in 1984, he says, "I am alone with my least favorite company, the guy who complains to me about his life and criticizes me about mine, more than anyone I know." What ensued was a horrific night-long binge of drugs and booze that sacred the hell out of him. His heart was pounding so hard he thought he was going to die. A friend took him to ER and he slept for thirty-six hours. Soon after that, he discoverd Cocaine Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s appropriately mute about the meetings of those groups but he says he hasn’t had a drink or a recreational drug for thirty years: "I am profoundly grateful for discovering the progam that saved my life."

While he’s candid about his mistakes and failures, he does try to balance them with brief mention of his philanthropy, his charity, his politics. His being a Democrat, he says, is pretty much about the family he was raised in. His passion for justice is still easily stirred, he says, as is his desire to "comfort the afflicted." He takes pride in a call from Ted Kennedy, thanking him for doing so much to help the Senator win an election. He’s nothing short of scathing in his assessment of the current state of U.S. politics:

....the systematic assault on compaign finance reform by elitist hacks like John Roberts or originalist fanatics like the late Antonin Scalia has only served to keep the White House, and a great many other offices in this country, in the hands of rich, white, corporate-leaning Christian men or those who will do their bidding.

One thing that makes this book different from the typical Hollywood memoir is that, instead of regaling us with the tale of his meteoric rise to stardom, Mr. Baldwin presents himself as somebody who was on the verge of becoming a big star but didn’t. He accepts now that he’s not a "bankable" star. And that gives him a certain peace, in so far as "the less power you believe you have, the simpler life can get. And simple is good in acting. It took me a bit more time to learn that."

The learning process had begun in the follow-up to The Hunt for Red October. Although his starring role in that 1990 movie looked like it was launching him into the Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise galaxy, the studios were hoping for another actor when it came to the sequel. Mr. Baldwin eventually learned that they’d been negotiating with Harrison Ford while offering Mr. Baldwin such lousy terms that he was bound to turn down the job. It may not be any surprise, then, that Mr. Ford is one of the few actors about whom Mr. Baldwin expresses some antipathy. On meeting him, he says, he found that Mr. Ford, although cordial, was something of a pipsqueak with a weak voice. He makes the point that the sequel didn’t do as well as the original Hunt and he goes on to point out that Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar. That’s the one place in the book where Mr. Baldwin sounds a trifle snarky. After all, do we really believe that winning an Oscar means much?

One of the most important turning points in Mr. Baldwin’s life was the time when he turned down a stage play for his first million-dollar movie job. He’d been having a fabulous time in Prelude to a Kiss at the Circle Rep but, when the producers decided to take it to Broadway, he opted instead for Neil Simon’s movie The Marrying Man, a "very forgettable film." He says this was the result of ignoring his own beliefs in order "to spin the wheel in the game of movie stardom."

Once you abandon your instincts and begin polling people about your choices, once you attempt to reshape yourself into someone you are not, it affects every decision you make. You begin to see your entire life through a distorted prism.

If his movie career turned out then, not to be all that glorious – not that he hasn’t had steady work – Mr. Baldwin makes it clear that he finds performing on stage much more satisfying. "The most fulfilling experiences I’ve had as an actor have been in the theatre, the only medium I could count on for a reliably satisfying artistic result. It was the only place I could bring what I had to offer and believe that it mattered." In a comparison between movie and stage acting, he says: "Stage is about doing half a dozen things, all at the same time, and doing them well. Movie stardom is about doing two, maybe three things on camera, but doing them to perfection." Movie stars like Steve McQueen, he says, taught him "that sometimes the trick is to do nothing at all."

Regarding his Broadway performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, he rhapsodizes:

Williams’s writing has the effect that all great writing has on an actor. It steadies you. It emboldens you. You ride an elevator to the top floor of a building, you jump off the penthouse balcony, and you fly. Just put one foot in front of the other, one line after the other, one moment after the other, and you are walking on air.

The curtain call on the closing night of Streetcar was another occasion for tears because "I knew I would never play that role again."

As for his celebrated work in tv comedy, Mr. Baldwin generously admits that it’s the writers who are funny, not him. But his shrewd take on human nature and his skill with words come in a sentence like: "There are actresses whose vanity and lack of self-awareness are so dense, you could split the atoms of their egos and fuel a reactor." In looking back over his life, Mr. Baldwin can’t help wondering – like a lot of us – whether he was happier when his life was simpler and his horizons more limited. He makes no secret of the fact that success and fame have brought him a lot of anguish. In describing his happiness with his second wife, Hilaria, and their three kids, he exaggerates the bliss a bit, I think, but maybe that’s acceptable in the case of a guy who had such a rough experience of marriage first time around.

Towards the end of the book, he gives the source of the title Nevertheless. It comes from a joke about the days of the touring companies in British classical theatre. Mr. Baldwin warns us that this joke includes a misogynistic slur but he explains that the Brits toss it around in a way that isn’t as contemptuous as it sounds to us. With all that preamble, you’re thinking: this better be a good joke. And it’s a beauty. It still makes me laugh. It manages to sneak in a suggestion of the naughty, trouble-making Xan Baldwin – a character running through the book no matter how mature the author seems at times – while also suggesting a theme something like: well, no matter how badly people think of us, no matter how awful our situation may seem, we’ve just got to carry on.

The book ends with an alphabetical index, running five pages, mentioning all the actors Mr. Baldwin has admired. There’s an affectionate, sing-songy quality to it. Something like those tributes to assorted celebs that The New Yorker publishes in jingle form around Christmas time every year. For many readers, I suppose, the main interest of Mr. Baldwin’s list would be trying to spot the omissions. Only one that I can think of. It would be under the ‘F’ and it certainly isn’t Fonda, Fiennes, Firth, Finney or Farrow.

 

Presumed Innocent (Mystery) by Scott Turow, 1987

In a New York Times book review section a while back, American tv journalist and attorney Megyn Kelly said that Presumed Innocent was her favourite legal thriller. That sounded like a good recommendation to me.

Which shows the beauty of not being able to read all the good stuff when it comes along. You can enjoy it much futher down the road. As in the case of this masterpiece of the genre. The core of the story is that Rusty Sabich, an up-and-coming prosecuting attorney, has been asked to handle the case of the murder of Carolyn Polhemus, also a member of the prosecuting attorney’s office. What the bosses don’t know at first is that Rusty and Carolyn had been having an affair. That’s just the beginning of the complications that pile up.

It can be a little difficult for some readers to follow all the in’s and out’s of the US legal system, particularly where politics and elections enter in. And I found one of the judges to be somewhat more cavalier and off-the-cuff than our Canadian judges are expected to be. But this is truly a splendid legal thriller. One courtroom cross-examination goes on brilliantly for fourteen pages. (You wonder if this is the sort of thing that inspired Michael Connelly’s "Mickey Haller" books about the Lincoln Lawyer.) Another courtroom interrogation provides some fine comedy.

One of the outstanding features of Presumed Innocent – and this is one that I find is beginning to become more prevalent in books that have come since – is that there are subtle hints that the protagonist, Rusty Sabich, our first-person narrator, is holding back some information. Just these little twitches that make you think: what is going on here??? In the end, the pay-off to the secrecy turns out to be well worthwhile.

Over and above the cleverness of the plot, Presumed Innocence stands out for literary qualities that raise it to the level of some of the best novels of any kind. To cite just a few of the author’s fascinating aperus:

TV and the movies have spoiled the most intimate moments of our lives. They have given us conventions which dominate our expectations in instants whose intensity would ordinarily make them spontaneous and unique. We have conventions of grief, which we learned from the Kennedys, and ordained gestures for victory by which we imitate the athletes we see on the tube, who in turn have learned the same things from other jocks they saw on TV. Seduction, too, has got its standards now, its slow-eyed moments, its breathless repartee.

From that observation, flows this bit of child psychology regarding Rusty’s son, Nat:

He seems newly aware of his powers, and of the fact that people regard the manner in which you do things as a sign of character. When he takes his turn at bat and hits, I watch the way his eyes lift as he comes around first base before he springs for second. It is not enough to say that he is merely imitating the players on TV, because what is significant is that he noticed in the first place.

About the affair with Carolyn, he offers this insight:

There was great passion in my love for Carolyn, but seldom joy.

And:

Her willingness had always been only secondary, convenient. I wanted my passion, in its great exultant moments, the burning achievement of my worship, of my thrall. To be without it was to be in some way dead.

In a more sombre note:

I acquired more of my father’s fatalism than I expected; a side of me has always been without faith in reason or in order. Life is simply experience; for reasons not readily discerned, we attempt to go on. At instants I am amazed that I am here. I have taken to watching my shoes as I cross the pavement, for the fact that I am moving, that I am going anywhere, doing anything, strikes me, at odd moments, as amazing. That in the midst of this misfortune life continues seems bizarre.

In contrast to the passion of the Carolyn affair, there’s this scene of domestic comfort:

...I will frequently arrive home at 11 p.m. or midnight to find Barbara waiting in her housecoat, my dinner warm. We sit together and she listens with her intense, abstracted curiosity to what has taken place that day, much like a thirties child before the radio. The dishes clank; I speak with my mouth full, and Barbara laughs and marvels about the witnesses, the cops, the lawyers whom she sees only through me.

 

When the final solution to the murder mystery is revealed and you find out what Rusty has been holding in, you have to go back and re-read soul-searching sessions like the following one. You’ll find that they mean a lot more than you first thought they did.

In the dark I sit, and I can feel the force of the large personages of my life circling about me like the multiple moons of some far planet, each one exerting its own deep tidal impulses upon me. Barbara. Nat. Both my parents. Oh, this cataclysm of love and attachment. And shame. I feel the rocking sway of all of it, and a moving sickness of regret. Desperately, desperately I promise everyone – all of them; myself; the God in whom I do not believe – that if I survive this I will do better. Better than I have. An urgent compact, as sincere and grave as any deathbed wish.

 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com