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Oct 3/18

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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: Less (Novel); Autumn (Essays); A Gentleman in Moscow (Novel); The Midnight Line (Mystery/Thriller); Napoleon (Bio); Love Like Salt (Memoir); Touch the Dragon (Memoir); Calypso (Humour); Golden Prey (Mystery/Thriller);

Less (Novel) by Andrew Sean Greer, 2017

To obtain this Pulitzer Prize-winner from the library, I had to put my name on a list of over five hundred eager readers. But the wait wasn’t too long, given that the library had some fifty copies.

I’m glad to say that this was one case where the critical and the popular response were well deserved.

Arthur Less, the protagonist of the story, is a gay American writer, on the brink of turning fifty. He had a big success with his first novel, his second didn’t do quite so well, and now his publisher has rejected his third novel. To escape his troubles, he has taken on a major trip that involves events like a literary conference in Mexico, an awards ceremony in Italy, a course that he’s teaching in Germany, a party in Paris, then holidays in Morocco and India.

Normally I don’t enjoy "Road Movies"and by association "Road Novels." The open-ended, episodic aspect of them doesn’t appeal to me. Then why did I find Arthur Less’ travels so engaging?

Two reasons, I think. Firstly, he gives us an agenda at the outset; we know where he’s going and how long he plans to spend in each place. There is a sense of pursuing a goal throughout, even if the goal keeps moving. More importantly, two themes running through the book provide a kind of continuity through Less’ peregrinations. One of the themes is his reminiscing about his life with a famous poet, a man who was some decades older than Arthur and was a winner of the Pulitzer prize. It’s because Arthur was the poet’s young lover that he’s being invited to a conference where he’s expected to provide fascinating details about the man’s life and the school of California poets that he belonged to.

The other recurring motif in the novel, and perhaps the more compelling one, is Arthur’s thoughts about a more recent lover of his, a man considerably younger than he, who is now on the point of getting married to another man. Arthur’s urge to escape the awkwardness of the wedding is one of his main motives for hitting the road. He and the younger man had a beautiful relationship but Arthur kept telling him that, given the difference in their ages, it was not going to last, that they had to accept that they would eventually part. When it did happen, Arthur was resigned to the fact. And yet....and yet.... he can’t get the thought of that upcoming wedding out of his mind. Hence the travels.

In this book, there are strong reminders of the work of Allan Hollinghurst, the British novelist who could be considered the go-to writer when it comes to gay life today. But his work is deadly serious compared to Andrew Sean Greer’s. Mr. Greer constantly has fun with Arthur’s trouble. Much of the time, he lands our hero in situations so broadly comic that they border on outright farce and slapstick. (Getting himself locked out of an apartment and having to climb in a window which happens to open onto somebody else’s apartment, for instance) Things are always going wrong: he gets to a conference and finds nobody else there speaks English; or he discovers that he has been slated to appear on a panel with an arch enemy. A stint in India incurs hassles that can’t help bringing to mind the hugely popular movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

You sense that Mr. Greer is hinting that you shouldn’t take any of this too seriously when he tosses in made-up words like "minisculitude." On the Morroco part of the trip, this comment – "Good to know there is always a later camel" brought to mind the famous line: "Men are like streetcars; another one will always come along." Any parent who’s been reading books to kids in the last fifty years won’t fail to get this one from the Paris sojourn: "Less is left breathless below an old house all covered in vines. A group of schoolgirls passes in two straight lines." No doubt, I missed several other allusions which could have been quite entertaining. At times we get Arthur’s phone conversations with his German publisher, translated by Mr. Greer into English. All along, we’ve been thinking that Arthur is quite proficient in German but the translations show how fractured the conversations must have sounded to a German speaker. I can’t recall any other instances of writer’s using that technique to heighten the humour in a novel.

One of the most amusing aspects of the book is the ironic impact of Arthur’s mulling over the deficiencies of his third novel, the rejected one. He gradually begins to realize that no readers today could be interested in the subject of that book: the picayune troubles of a gay San Francisco man on the point of turning fifty. And yet this is exactly what Mr. Greer is giving us and it turns out to be fascinating!

Arthur doesn’t seem inclined to a lot of introspection but he’s becoming more and more convinced that he’s something of a fool. He marvels that he can have been so wrong about most things. As for his gay longings, about all he can come up with is this one question: "Why this endless need for a man as a mirror?" He fondly remembers camping trips with his dad, even though later in life he found that such outings were prompted by a book his dad had been reading about how to make sure your sissy son turned out straight. A wistful reverie about straight men is prompted when some men pitch in to help him find a ring he has lost while grocery shopping:

Was this how men felt? Straight men? Alone so often, but if they faltered – if they lost a wedding ring! – then the whole band of brothers would descend to fix the problem? Life was not hard; you shouldered it bravely, knowing all the time that if you sent the signal, help would arrive. How wonderful to be part of such a club. Half a dozen men gathered around, engaged in the task.... So they did have hearts, after all. They were not cold, cruel dominators; they were not high school bullies to be avoided in the halls. They were good; they were kind; they came to the rescue. And today Less was one of them.

For the most part, Arthur seems rather bemused, if not mildly puzzled by what’s going on around him. He’s the kind of writer who has a gift for noting the oddities of human nature. For instance, there’s this comment on a fellow shopper: "The kind of guy who wore his bicycle helmet while shopping." Which is not to say that we don’t get any deep thoughts about what really matters. But they mostly come from Arthur’s interlocutors. One of the most striking instances of this comes in a meeting with a woman who’s also turning fifty. She, a companion on his camel trek across the Sahara, points out that it’s almost a miracle that she and Less are alive.

Not because they’ve survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It’s that they’ve survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty and to have made it here: to this frosted-cake landscape, these mountains of gold, the little table they can now see sitting on the dune, set with olives and pita and glasses and wine chilling on ice, with the sun waiting more patiently than any camel for their arrival.

Later, this same woman raises the big question: what is true love? Is it slogging through a life faithfully with someone, seeing each other through the daily grind – walking the dog, doing the taxes, cleaning the bathroom – being there for each other? Or is it the earth-shattering cataclysm, the lightning bolt that changes everything? The question isn’t answered but it must be admitted that it’s one of the most basic ones that confronts all of us.

Is it possible that a novel could be so good that I couldn’t find a single fault with it? Maybe, maybe not. In this case, there are just a couple of quibbles. Throughout, I found myself thinking that Arthur was making too much of a fuss about turning fifty. It really isn’t that big a deal. I wanted to tell Arthur to cut the drama. However, that’s exactly what one other character in the novel eventually does tell him. So that helps to off-set any fear I might have had that Mr. Greer was exaggerating the issue. One other thing about the novel leaves me slightly perplexed. Through his travels, several people who come into contact with Arthur get sick. It begins to seem that he is spreading some kind of epidemic. This is not treated as a huge crisis; it’s just another oddity. But I kept expecting some sort of explanation. As far as I could tell, none was given.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Mr. Greer’s writing is the genre of the narration. For the most part, you think you’re reading what would normally be labelled, I think, as "limited omniscient" authorship or "close third person" narration: an anonymous third-person narrator is telling you about Arthur’s life, taking you into his thoughts but not into anyone else’s. Every now and then, though, you’ll get a statement from the narrator like "I recall" or "How do I describe him?" or "...how do I explain it?" As these sorts of statements become more numerous towards the end of the book, you start to wonder: who is this person who is telling this story?

As should happen regarding any mystery embedded in a book, the final revelation of the narrator’s identity comes as a surprise. Without giving too much away, I think I can say that this comedy ends with a flourish that has almost a Shakespearean quality to it.

 

Autumn (Essays) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2015; English translation by Ingvild Burkey, 2017

Karl Ove Knausgaard has made such a splash internationally and has entertained so many of us readers so grandly with his series of autobiographical novels under the title My Strugge that anybody who’s interested in contemporary writing will take a serious look at anything else he has to offer. Autumn, a little book consisting of sixty short essays – most of them just two or three pages long – is presented as notes to his unborn daughter: a father’s look at life, his observations about the world around him, his thoughts about the kinds of things that might spark his daughter’s interest some day. Much of the subject matter is the natural world – plants, insects, animals – but there are also reflections on the parts of the world that humans have created.

The first thing that hits you is that Mr. Knausgaard is not at his best when he doesn’t have a story to tell. Without a narrative thread, his writing is not nearly as captivating as in My Struggle. Whenever a bit of story does emerge in these essays – something about driving the kids home from school, for instance, or his kids’ response to lightning or a reminiscence about the time the author peed his pants as a teenager – the prose comes to life and jumps off the page. The rest of the time, it threatens to become too intellectual, too esoteric.

I suppose the intention here is that Mr. Knausgaard is meant to come off as a kind of philosopher, but I do not find all of his thoughts particularly noteworthy. Do we really need Mr. Knausgaard to tell us what an apple tastes like? Do we need him to tell us that the special quality of a tin can is that it separates its contents from everything else? A discussion of earth doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. An explanation of the effect of frames – picture frames, window frames – could be seen as an exercise in erudition or a belabouring of the obvious. A meditation on drums makes you think that the writer is looking around the room trying to find something to write about.

Among the too esoteric passages, this summing up of a meditation on the brown stubble in the fields seems to have the writer striving too hard for meaning : "...the landscape is still nothing other than itself, and the sensation the driver may have, of a few seconds of dizzying intensity of being, is not the result of anything opening up, but its opposite, of something becoming denser."

A treatise on forgiveness starts with a lengthy and unnecessary note about change in the material world and in commerce before getting to changes of attitude, which leads us to the subject of forgiveness.

When it comes to essays about toilets and urine, you get the impression that perhaps Mr. Knausgaard is staking his claim to distinction on the fact that he is the kind of writer who will write about things that nobody else will. (And, indeed, this was one of the selling features of his autobiographical novels.) The minute detail, the careful observation in an essay on vomit makes you feel that he’s rubbing your nose in it. It’s as if he’s saying: See – all these things you never noticed about puke? The rest of you all turn away from it. But I, being a writer, can examine it closely and tell you what you’re missing!

And yet, this essay is one that builds to a truly worthwhile and notable conclusion. Mr. Knausgaard is bringing his little daughter home from school on the bus when she vomits suddenly all over him. Although everybody on the bus maintains perfectly polite decorum, it’s obvious that they’re repelled by the sight and the smell. Mr. Knausgaard marvels at the fact that he does not feel any of the repugnance that you would think would be natural and inevitable. Why? Simply because he loves his daughter!

Tidbits in several other essays strike a chord of resonance with me.

  • When the author looks at boots lined up in the front hall, they somehow seem representative of their owners.
  • I was touched by his saying that holding an infant close to one’s body is one of the greatest joys in life. (Actually, I’m usually scared by the fragility of the little bundle in my arms if I happen to be holding an infant.)
  • A reflection on the humble thermos strikes an interesting sociological note: when you’re carrying one, it’s like you’re bringing a bit of your home with you, which is why you must never bring one to someone else’s home!
  • One of the most moving essays in the book is a meditation on loneliness. As a result of reading his father’s diaries, Mr. Knausgaard came to understand that loneliness was the man’s constant state.

This observation of an ambulance that’s travelling across the countryside at night with flashing lights but no siren, is truly an example of prodigious writing. Mr. Knausgaard finds that this spectacle "is like being inside a brain, that the unmoving lights of the farms come from clusters of cells that regulate basic functions like respiration and metabolism, while the blue light that comes racing along is a sudden idea, a terrible thought or a dream."

Mr. Knausgaard says he used to read Flaubert when he was eleven years old, not that the story meant much to him at that age, but he loved soaking up the atmosphere. I have reservations about his claim that Madame Bovary is the greatest novel ever, but I appreciate his saying that it has "a sharpness, a crystal-clear feeling of physical space and materiality which no novel either before or after it has even come close to matching." He says Flaubert’s sentences are like a rag wiping the grime off a window, with the result that "for the first time in a long while the world shines brightly again."

A tribute to another artist has a similarly magnanimous feel to it. Van Gogh, says Mr. Knausgaard, had lost his battle with technique and by abandoning it, "he gained something else, a carelessness that allows the world to appear unfettered by how we happen to have conceived of it." The force of the paintings, he says, is "all their manic light and singular power of penetration, which make them appear as though the celestial were suffusing the earthly and lifting it up."

An essay on female genitalia, particularly as seen by a father who is bathing his daughter, takes Mr. Knausgaard into decidedly dangerous territory. I’m guessing that some readers would feel that he should be censured for going there. I think he deserves credit for speaking a truth that most writers would shy away from.

This being one of those beautiful little books that feels good in the hand, I feel that one less pleasant feature of its appearance needs to be flagged. About six paintings by Vanessa Baird, a Norweigan artist, are provided by way of illustrations between some of the essays and on the end papers. Some landscapes are lovely but a couple of other paintings are exceedingly unattractive. One features a woman who looks like she has just been attacked by a huge bird; another features an ugly naked infant. I do not understand why such art work would be included in the book or what connection it could have to the text.

Although there are several small gems to be found in this book, I don’t think it’s significant enough to make a major impact on the reading public. It seems unlikely that this kind of writing would have been published if the writer had not already established a huge following.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow (Novel) by Amor Towles, 2016

This novel came highly recommended, both by word of mouth and by the print media. It tells the story of a young count’s life in the years just after the Russian Revolution. Instead of being put up against a stone wall and shot as a member of the reviled aristocracy, he is sentenced to internal exile in a Moscow hotel. (I’m wondering if such a thing ever happened, but never mind.) Banished from the lavish suite where he has been living in the hotel, he’s forced to embark on a much more humble life based in a baren garret under the roof of the establishment.

This is a fabulous premise for a novel. Who ever thought what it would be like for a former aristocrat to adjust to the ways of the new regime? We get the hotel manager apologizing for the fact that the count can no longer be addressed as such. We see our hero watching from the balcony of the ballroom where the most elegant members of high society formerly socialized and where now the air is thick with the cigarette smoke from bulky, self-important bureaucrats in tense negotiations. We meet a precocious young girl, also a resident of the hotel (who reminds me of the character "Eloise" in the children’s books about a heroine with that name), who takes the count behind the scenes to discover hidden features of hotel life. All this the man experiences with a calm, patient openness to whatever shocks life has in store.

In spite of such promise in the context, I had to give up on this book not quite half way through the four hundred and sixty-two pages.

One reason is that the book is entirely episodic. There is no plot whatsoever (at least not as far as I read). The count ambles through his life from day to day with virtually no purpose or intention. People crop up and disappear, with no consequences. For instance, he helps a young couple in the dining room who are having trouble ordering a meal. The waiter is coaxing them to select a wine that they obviously can’t afford, so our man kindly steps in and recommends a much more suitable wine. We never see this couple again. Ditto for a lot of his encounters. Maybe the story picks up something of an onward momentum later on, but it left me behind.

A more bothersome problem is that I found the writing style off-putting. There is a decorous, slightly dated sound to it that reeks faintly of literary pretension. It could be that the author is trying to capture the tone of voice that the protagonist himself might have used. But I found it cloying and artificial. Here, for example, are some sentences from one passage:

  • While, as a rule, the Count always took the stairs, when he approached the second-floor landing that night, on some ghostly whim he called for the elevator, assuming he would have it to himself.
  • Parting with the cat on the fifth floor, the Count trudged up the steps of the belfry in woeful acknowledgment that the celebration of his anniversary had been a fiasco.
  • But as the Count was about to open the door to his rooms, on the back of his neck he felt a breath of air that was distinctly reminiscent of a summer breeze.
  • Warm and forgiving, it called up feelings of summer nights from earlier in his life – from when he was five and ten and twenty on the streets of St. Petersburg or the pastures of Idlehour. Nearly overcome by the surge of old sentiments, he needed to pause a moment...

Granted, there is some humour in the author’s treatment of the Count. While he was reading the typical stories in the newspaper, the Count couldn’t help feeling that he had read it all before: "It wasn’t until the fifth article that the Count realized he had read it all before. For this was yesterday’s paper." In one scene, the Count finds the girl who has become his pal conducting an experiment in gravity by having a boy drop things from the balcony of the ballroom. It occurs to the Count that the balcony surely isn’t high enough to calculate the acceleration of gravity. "But it is hardly the role of the casual observer to call into question the methodology of the seasoned scientist. So, the Count kept his wonderings where they belonged."

And there is unquestionably some brilliant writing on display. For instance, the Count’s memory of a certain period as something like a kaleidoscope:

At the bottom of a kaleidoscope’s cylinder lie shards of colored glass in random arrangement, but thanks to a glint of sunlight, the interplay of mirrors, and the magic of symmetry, when one peers inside what one finds is a pattern so colorful, so perfectly intricate, it seems certain to have been designed with the utmost care. Then by the slightest turn of the wrist, the shards begin to shift and settle into a new configuration – a configuration with its own symmetry of shapes, its own intricacy of colors, its own hints of design.

It’s interesting that the author should tell us that a visitor to the hotel in the late 1920s wouldn’t notice that much had changed as a result of the Revolution. However, by way of back story, the author gives some of the count’s experience leading up to his temporary absence from Russia around the time of the Revolution. This amounts to an operatic melodrama involving derring-do, games of chance, sexual seduction and gun shots. Maybe some people did have such experiences but I don’t want to read about them unless a writer can make them believable for me. This writer made me feel that I was being subjected to a lot of hyperbolic falderol.

 

The Midnight Line (Mystery/Thriller) by Lee Child, 2017

This Jack Reacher adventure starts with his noticing a West Point graduation ring in a pawn shop in Wisconsin. It’s a small ring, so Reacher knows that it must have been a woman’s. It’s dated 2005 and that was a difficult year for military grads, what with Afghanistan and all that. As a West Point grad himself, Reacher knows that the ring must have meant a lot to its owner, so, being the gallant fellow that our Reacher is, he decides to find out what desperate plight could have caused the woman to give up the ring. All he wants is an answer to his question, he says. "I’m not trying to save the world."

In a major way, then, this Reacher novel takes on a different tone from many others. You might say it has a more humanitarian focus. Instead of pursuing some bad guys and trying to eliminate them as his major goal, Reacher is trying to reach this unknown woman and see if he can help her in some way. His consequent travels take him through the small towns and the backwoods of the upper Midwest of the US. He does, of course, encounter lots of bad guys – thieves, drug dealers, murderers – but he’s only going through them so that he can get to her.

Accordingly, there isn’t as much display of Reacher’s physical prowess. Near the outset of the tale, he does single-handedly polish off a gang of biker thugs but, after that, there are only a couple of instances where he has to rough somebody up. We don’t get as much of Reacher’s wise-ass humour as in some books, but there is some of it here. In one instance, Reacher is trying to get information about one bad guy from another bad guy. The guy Reacher’s talking to says that the other guy is not somebody that Reacher would want to meet. Reacher’s response: "Neither were you. But here I am anyway."

Along with the suspense and the thrills, Lee Child, as always, gives us a few nuggets of wisdom or knowledge to chew over. I didn’t know, for instance, that hundreds of aspen trees in a grove are all joined underground by a single root, making an aspen wood one organism, the largest living thing on earth. I like the fact that, in one situation, Mr. Child has Reacher noting the difference between movies and reality. As Reacher’s walking along the sidewalk, somebody in a car is pointing a gun at him, trying to force him to get in. "The whole get-in-the-car thing looked pretty good in the movies, but on the street it was basically optional. Plenty of choices. Keep calm and walk away. Live to fight another day."

A nice psychological note comes in a woman’s explanation of the difference between her and her sister. The sister went into the army because she was willing to kill people if necessary, whereas the speaker wasn’t. "I wasn’t saying it had to be all or nothing," she says. "In fact it never is. No one says always or never. Everyone says sometimes." I find that an interesting observation on human nature.

An even more fascinating insight comes in a woman’s comments to Reacher about her beauty:

Deep down pretty people know other people feel they’re getting something for nothing. They have to be aw-shucks about it. They have to say it makes them feel shallow. But now I can tell you. It makes them feel great. It’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight. Sometimes I would dial it up and just mow them down, one by one, bam, bam, bam. It’s a superpower. Like clicking the phasers from stun to kill. There’s no point denying it. It’s a significant evolutionary advantage.

And speaking of human nature, one of Reacher’s quirks caught my attention here. Formerly, I’ve noted that he never seemed to be able to have sex without showering first. There’s no mention of that in this book but showers still loom large: we get two instances where he talks about using a whole bar of soap in the shower. I’m wondering: how could that be possible? But then it occurs to me that we may be talking about those skimpy little bars of soap provided in hotels and motels.

As for other characters:

  •  A retired FBI agent who’s now a private investigator ends up working with Reacher. It’s a strange partnership: Reacher’s brawny swagger paired with the other guy’s buttoned-up, shirt-and-tie style, but the two men work together surprisingly well.
  • A sheriff who comes into the scene at one point takes a piece of broken screen from a window, rubs the mildew on it, sniffs it and declares that the screen was broken about a year and a half previously. Maybe somebody could truly make that call but it reminded me of scenes in the Hardy Boys mysteries where some expert was always able, by studying the ashes, to determine how long a fire had been out. Not that it wouldn’t be possible to determine that, but it always struck me as a little improbable that just the right expert on ashes happened to be on hand when Joe and Frank needed him.
  • One other character in The Midnight Line raised some questions for me. Detective Gloria Nakamura works out of the cop shop in a small town. She does eventually have an integral role in the solving of the mystery of the ring and the mopping up of the associated mayhem, but she never seems to have anything to do other than sitting around in her car spying on suspects. Could the police department of a small town afford to have somebody do nothing but that?

Although the mood is quieter and less exciting than in many Reacher books, Mr. Child continues to make the character so engaging and so believable, that The Midnight Line is thoroughly satisfying.

 

Napoleon (Biography) by David A. Bell, 2015

What’s with Napoleon? I’ve never been able to get the fuss about him. An elderly aunt of mine once answered the phone in tears. When asked why she was crying, she said: "I’ve just been reading about what that governor of Saint Helena did to Napoleon." When we were living in Provence and my son was in grade five, his class was all worked up about a project on Napoleon. Why do people get excited about the guy? Why the mystique?

This short bio (just 113 pages) looked like a good place to start looking for answers. David A. Bell, a history prof at Princeton, acknowledges that the library shelves groan under voluminous studies of Napoleon but he offers this book – sub-titled as "A Concise Biography" – for people like me, who want an overview of the subject without getting bogged down in details.

It soon becomes apparent how Napoleon gradually rose to fame. After military training, he started having some notable successes in small skirmishes, so he was gradually promoted and started taking on larger battles. Then he did what any successful militarist does: he started expanding his reach, conquering and absorbing territories of other peoples. Pretty soon, he was declaring himself Emperor of France. It’s sobering to see that the tactics he used to consolidate his power are still being used by despots and dictators in many parts of the world today: you call a plebiscite on the question of whether or not you should be given more authority, then you rig the results so that it looks like the voters are overwhelmingly in favour of your hold on them.

Professor Bell makes some interesting points about circumstances that abetted Napoleon’s ascent. First, this was the beginning of the era of "Total War." No more beautifully costumed soldiers marching to the sound of fife and drum. This was the beginning of the scorched earth approach, which led directly to the carnage of the First World War. And certain factors of Napoleon’s own personality came into play. There’s no question that he was a military genius in the way he conducted battles. (I couldn’t always follow the tactics as described.) It also helped a lot that he was an expert on public relations. He convinced his soldiers that he was one with them; he even let them use the familiar "tu" when addressing him. And he established newspapers whose sole purpose was to publish glorifying – and highly exaggerated – accounts of his military victories.

There’s no denying that he did make some positive contributions to civilization. His system of law – the Napoleonic Code – is still largely in place in many parts of the world (although Professor Bell says that the paper-pushing bureaucracy that plagues French government is a less fortunate result of Napoleon’s system). He is thought to have been less malicious than some tyrants of more recent times. For instance, he didn’t set out deliberately to destroy or wipe out conquered peoples. No ethnic cleansing, then. But he didn’t hesitate to slaughter a few thousand resisters now and then just as a healthy reminder that he was the boss. And he re-established slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies in 1802. On the other hand, he was relatively merciful to opponents, such as Talleyrand, his former minister of foreign affairs, who had turned against him.

Still, its hard for me to see anything glorious about him. You won’t find me singing along with the great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, after his interview with Napoleon, praised his "state of continued illumination" and saw at his side "divine protection and a constant fortune." It’s impossible for me to see how Victor Hugo could acknowledge the political tyranny and the human suffering, yet still speak of the "sublime spectacle" of Napoleon’s regime. My hat’s off to Beethoven who cancelled his dedication of his third symphony to Napoleon after the declaration of the empire. I can’t see Napoleon’s story as anything other than a demonstration of the havoc wrought by a monstrous ego. It makes me sick to hear of him telling his men that they were dying "for the glory of France." Huh? More like for the glory of one megalomaniac. His life reminds me of something a friend often says with regard to the devastating competition and the enmity that prevail in so much of our world: "In the evolutionary race, it’s the psychopaths who have won."

Love Like Salt (Memoir) by Helen Stevenson, 2016

This is an example of the kind of thing that a casual browsing through the library shelves can turn up. This attractive little book – one I’d never heard of – feels good in the hand. Also, it has some charming drawings by way of illustrations. In the preface, the British author talks about her family’s living for seven years in a rather ordinary small town in France.

That was enough to catch my attention.

On getting the book home, though, I was dismayed to find out that the first chapter was about the author’s discovering that her young daughter had cystic fibrosis. Oh dear, I’m not in the mood for a mother’s maudlin tale about her troubles with a fatally ill child. However, it turned out that the disease is not the major subect of the book, at least not for the first half. The question of the child’s health is always there in the background, but much of the first part of the book is about the family’s integration into the French town and about the mother’s trying to cope with the fact that her mother is succumbing to dementia back in England.

The issues around cystic fibrosis do eventually come to the fore again in terms of setbacks in the child’s health and various treatments that are tried. But the material never becomes lugubrious. That’s because Helen Stevenson is a good writer – which is all that really matters in the end. She finds an effective way of describing the careful planning that, because of the cystic fibrosis, goes into family affairs: "I feel like a seamstress who pins and tacks every seam, every hemline, and leaves the tacking in in case she has to unpick it and do it again, over and over."

We get a good sense of what life was like in France for Ms. Stevenson, her husband and their two young daughters. The lack of creativity in the schooling is noted, along with the recourse to rather rigid disciplines of learning. While much of the narrative is rather slow-moving, with careful description of medical interventions, a note of genuine suspense is introduced in the episode where Ms. Stevenson loses one of her daughters on the subway.

Being an accomplished pianist and piano teacher, Ms. Stevenson became the parish organist and she accompanied other performers in several concerts. Largely through music, she became friends with several of the townspeople. One of the best people she encounters is the local priest, a young man who is unstinting in his sincere efforts to encourage people and help them to enjoy better lives. (It’s nice to see a priest getting good press for a change.) Ms. Stevenson admits to a longing for the mysterious and the miraculous in Catholicism, compared to the rational, reasonable Protestantism she was raised in.

The book ends with about fourteen pages of musings on motherhood and on life in general which I found less interesting than the family story that makes up the bulk of the book. But maybe some readers will get more from these reflections than I did. The book did leave me somewhat confused about the author’s final take on France. Maybe the author is confused too. Maybe we all feel some ambivalence about such experiences. It seems that, at first, people were extravagantly kind and friendly, for the most part, especially towards the child with cystic fibrosis. Later, the children start bullying her. Even the adults start showing less empathy, insisting that the child simply has to toughen up so that the bullying won’t bother her.

One thing about the book that bothers me a bit is the insertion, before each chapter, of a quote from some other work. I often wonder why authors do this. It seems pretentious to me. If your work is good enough to stand on its own, why do you need these other writers to bolster your argument? Are you trying to claim an affinity with better known authors? On the other hand, if you think of a memoir like this as a conversation with a reader, I suppose it may seem completely natural and acceptable to say something like: oh, and by the way, here’s something interesting that so-and-so said on the same topic.

The risk you run, though, is that the quote may come across as stronger than your own writing. An excerpt from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook talks about the fact that all education is a form of indoctrination. Children are taught "an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture." Kids are taught by teachers who have been formed according to a regime laid down by their predecessors; it’s a self-perpetuating system. Some people will eventually break free and find ways of forming their own judgements.

Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

With all due respect to Ms. Stevenson’s interesting memoir, I’d have to say that that passage from Ms. Lessing’s writing meant more to me than anything else I read this summer.

 

Touch the Dragon (Memoir) by Karen Connelly, 1992

This is the kind of thing you pull out of the collection of mouldy, warped books on the shelves at the cottage. Having no idea what it’s about, you look at it somewhat skeptically. The fact that it won the 1993 Governor General’s award for non-fiction might mean something, but you never know. Although not as shabby as some of the cottage books, it’s not especially attractive. There’s too much text squeezed onto each page, not quite enough white space around the edges, and no illustrations to lighten the effect.

However, you soon find that Karen Connelly is a genuine writer and that her memoir makes for good reading. Written in the present tense, the book is presented as her journal of the year that she spent (1985-86) as a high school student in Thailand. At the age of sixteen, she was longing for an experience that was completely different from her home life in Calgary, so she made arrangements through her local Rotary group to be hosted by the Rotary group in Denchai, in northern Thailand, where she would attend a girls’ school and live in the homes of local families.

Within a few months, Ms. Connelly was fluent in Thai and was warmly accepted within the community. She takes us right inside the town’s life and makes us feel it. (Perhaps the fact that the insects and the humidity seem to loom so large says more about me than about the place.) She quickly learns always to bow on meeting an older person and to keep her head lower than his or hers. Having to do laundry by hand every day eventually comes to seem natural but she needs special instruction on the niceties of hanging her clothes to dry: the garments that are closest to the head should hang highest because the head is the more noble part of the body. She learns to fend off people’s assumptions that there must be something wrong with her when she craves solitude. In spite of the prevailing kindness, she will occasionally be reminded that, being white, she can’t be trusted.

Not all of the characters come off the page to a memorable extent; sometimes the members of the families she’s living with are hard to distinguish from one another. But a few feisty women who have somewhat liberated ideas do stand out. Ms. Connelly ponders the paradox of the profound sexism of the culture: women are highly prized for their sexuality yet made to feel inferior and subservient in most ways. When she tries to engage people in discussion about an issue of justice – such as the exploitation of under-age prostitutes in Bankok – they simply smile and congratulate her on her excellent speaking of Thai.

In general, she finds the Thai people incredibly sweet and gentle, yet she recoils from the way a school principal can cruelly berate a boy for having hair a fraction of an inch too long. When she and another girl take a giddy run through the rain, one of the Rotary men scolds her for being so reckless as to incur the risk of an illness that would cause trouble with the Rotary people back in Calgary. What Ms. Connelly seems to find (as does Ms. Stevenson in Love Like Salt, reviewed above) is that every culture has it’s beautiful and its less beautiful aspects. We, as conflicted beings, can’t help but react with mixed feelings. Difficult as life in Denchai was at times, Ms. Connelly made this note after a few months: "The cultural taboos and catches annoy me. I want to have an easier Thailand, which is absurd, because anything easier would not be worth as much."

Ms. Connelly conveys several local events with the vividness of a National Geographic documentary. The unannounced arrival of a team of acrobats in town one morning, for instance. And who knew that there was a day in Thailand when everybody tried to sneak up on everybody else and douse them with water? One of the most memorable celebrations is the wedding of a shy bride and groom where an elderly man and woman officiated. Little did Ms. Connelly realize that, after the official ceremony and before the evening partying, she was expected to vacate her bedroom so that the newly weds could bed down there (I guess it was considered the best room in the neighbourhood) with all the wedding guests crowding into the room to wish them well.

Being a poet, Ms. Connelly already had a book of poetry published when this memoir came out. Sometimes her poetic streak makes the text take flight; at other times, the writer seems to be expressing a sensitivity so extreme that it’s difficult to share. For example: "I tread water in the lit blue pool, staring into the white eyes of the stars. I want to be like them. I do not want to close my eyes." And: "Our heads are light with the mist, riddled with bamboo." (What on earth could that mean?) On a cloudy day, she says "A heavy quilt of light covers my face and shoulders." And occasionally the narrative skill falters. Ms. Connelly doesn’t have a journalist’s instinct for reporting. She’ll jump into an anecdote, for instance, about a train ride to another town. But she won’t tell you where that town is or why she’s heading there.

In terms of descriptive prose, Ms. Connelly is at her best in painting vivid pictures of the countryside. I was particularly charmed by her discovery of a tiny village secreted among some trees, where an elderly woman took her in, fed her, and entertained her en famille for an afternoon. Although Ms. Connelly offers a vivid description of Bankok, I found a serious lack in terms of the picture of Denchai. (Google today identifies the town as Den Chai.) I have no idea of what the streets or the houses look like. This is one case where a book is crying out for photos or illustrations.

Sometimes, I can’t help feeling that Ms. Connelly exaggerates the way Denchai feels so distant from Calgary. At times, she reflects that her Canadian life no longer seems real, more like a fading dream. That seems a bit much for me, but perhaps that’s because I’m an older reader who has already seen a lot of the world apart from my homeland. Perhaps, it’s understandable that someone as young as Ms. Connelly would be so stunned by foreignness on her first major departure from home.

One other aspect of Ms. Connelly’s youthfulness puzzles me. She says that one of the hardest things about her first months in Denchai was being away from her boyfriend. She didn’t know how she would get through the year without the physical contact, without the sex. After not hearing from him for a long time, she finally contacts him by phone and learns that he is already living with another woman. Of course, Ms. Connelly is devastated. Fair enough. But something about that scenario struck me as odd. A sixteen-year-old Calgary girl who, in 1986, is so deeply immersed in a sexual relationship with a guy? That doesn’t sound like any Canadian girl of that age whom I might have known at that time. Perhaps Ms. Connelly should have made some note of the fact that her situation might have been seen as exceptional. The fact that she didn’t see any such need may, again, have to do with her being more of a poet than a reporter; she may not be aware of the kind of questions that would come to a reader’s mind.

Admittedly, I hesitate to raise the question. Perhaps my doing so is evidence of some kind of inappropriate curiosity on my part. However, it seems to me that, when you’re reading a memoir like this, the key thing is that you need to feel that you’re coming to know the author. When there’s a question that interferes with your understanding the author in a major way, then maybe you should raise it.

 

Calypso (Humour) by David Sedaris, 2018

Fans of David Sedaris have come to accept that he’s at a point in his life now where you can’t expect his writing to be full of laughs. A guy can’t be hilarious forever. What you look for mainly in his essays now are intriguing comments on a life that seems pretty weird at times. I get the impression that there might even be a hidden – or not so hidden – agenda in this book. He seems to be wanting to let us know that the life of a globe-trotting celebrity can be difficult. Even though he used to wish for the kind of fame he has now, it’s not a lot fun being forced to complete theatrical appearances when a severe gastro-intestinal bug has you in constant fear that you’re going to shame yourself in front of thousands of people.

Still, his writing does occasionally offer some great lines. Like this one, when he’s talking about how people in airports in the southern US are always offering him wishes for "a blessed day." He says it makes him feel like he’s been sprayed with God cologne. He’s desperate to get it off himself: "Quick, before I start wearing ties with short-sleeved shirts." That line comes in one of my favourite essays in this collection. It’s about the annoying clichs that have become so popular in common discourse. "Awesome" being one of the most insidious ones. And the fondness for over-using the word "conversation," as in: "We need to have a conversation about...." Mr. Sedaris doesn’t include some of my pet peeves in the language department – "going forward" and "price point" for example – but he touches on enough of the fads to give me some comfort in knowing that somebody else is as sensitive to these linguistic annoyances as I am.

In several of these essays, the humour is, although present, not predominant. Sometimes a more plaintive quality seeps through. There are his regrets, for instance, that none of his family members did anything about his mother’s alcoholism; they all tried to deny it. And then there’s the thought that he rebuffed his sister Tiffany the last time she tried to reach him, some years before she committed suicide. Mr. Sedaris doesn’t dwell on these issues in a sentimental way; you wouldn’t expect that from him. He presents them in a matter-of-fact way that suggests something like: life dishes up a lot of these inexplicable sorrows, doesn’t it?

The on-going conflict with his dad is another dark thread running through the book. Mr. Sedaris acknowledges that his dad probably loves him - his dad, he figures, would probably save him from a burning house, after he saved everybody else – but he takes it as a given that his dad doesn’t like him. Except for their love of jazz, there’s almost no subject on which they can manage anything like bonding. But the son’s lively description of his dad’s foibles gives you the sense that there is at least an appreciation of the older man’s colourful character and a wish that their relationship could be closer.

It’s probably inevitable that, in a collection of some twenty-one essays, there might be a couple that would fail to strike a spark with one particular reader. In my case, one of the less enjoyable essays would be the one about shopping in Tokyo. Mr. Sedaris enthuses about making extravagant purchases in the company of his sisters. Mostly, he goes for kooky outfits that many of us would consider outlandish. Mr. Sedaris apparently wants us to enjoy the silliness of these escapades but it’s a little hard for me to enjoy the thought of somebody’s having so much money to squander on fripperies. Another subject that comes up in a couple of essays and that I find disagreeable is Mr. Sedaris’ having a fatty tumour removed from his side, keeping it in the freezer and then feeding it to turtles. Far too yucky for me.

I found it surprising that, in these essays, Mr. Sedaris reveals as much as he does about his relationship with Hugh Hamrick, his boyfriend of several decades standing. I’d thought he was a bit more circumspect on that subject, at least in the things of his that I’ve read (other than his diaries). I know that these essays aren’t meant to be literally true. Mr. Sedaris himself has referred to them as "true-ish," I believe. You accept that there is exaggeration and some invention. Still, you can’t help feeling that the writings have some factual basis, that the relationships as described convey something of the reality.

Here, the sexual dynamics of the partners' relationship comes into sharper focus than you might expect. One of the themes you pick up is the sense that the one partner is perceived as more masculine, the other less so. (I hope it’s not considered sexist to go into this subject at a time when gender identity can be such a thorny issue; but Mr. Sedaris seems to be inviting us to see things this way; he doesn’t seem bashful about his situation.) In one essay, Mr. Sedaris registers a mild regret about an Ottawa journalist’s describing him as "effeminate." He offers a few reasons why he feels it’s not fair to apply that term to him. In the essay about shopping for clothes, however, he tells us that Mr. Hamrick makes several jibes – albeit teasing ones – that cast Mr. Sedaris in a somewhat feminine role. Regarding one purchase that David calls a smock, Hugh insists that it’s a dress. Hugh says that some of the purchases make it look like David is transitioning. When David’s considering a shirt that’s meant to be worn backwards but is too tight at the neck, Hugh says: "Maybe it’ll fit after you have your Adam’s apple shaved off."

Delving further into their relationship, Mr. Sedaris talks about the time they’re sitting at the dining table and it suddenly occurs to him to ask Mr. Hamrick how many lovers he had in the past. This leads to something of a shock for the writer. And then there’s the time when they’re talking about what Mr. Hamrick should do if Mr. Sedaris dies first. David wants Hugh to find a really good-looking guy for a partner. Hugh objects: "What do I want with a good-looking boyfriend?" David: "Right. Thanks." One of the most surprisingly candid remarks about their sex life comes in the section where Mr. Sedaris is talking about how prudish Mr. Hamrick is about nudity: he won’t even let his partner into the bathroom when he’s peeing. David’s rejoinder: "I had that in my mouth ten minutes ago and now it’s a private part?"

When it comes to explicit sexual references, an essay on cursing is over the top. In his travels around the world, Mr. Sedaris asks people from different cultures to tell him the worst insults that can be hurled at another person in their language. Some of the samples he comes up with are obscenely vile. I found myself laughing a lot in spite of myself here. I think what makes the material work is that you have the impression of Mr. Sedaris as this really nice person who is repeating these terrible things with a sense almost of child-like wonder, not malice.

One of the reasons that I read David Sedaris is to be reassurred that it is still possible for a person to write clear, accessible prose that tells a story in a direct, conversational way, without any literary artifice or clutter. Mr. Sedaris makes his prose seem effortless and utterly natural (which means that it probably takes a lot of effort). Sometimes his adroit handling of colloquial English can be delicious. One of the most striking examples in this book is the spot where he is lamenting the fact that a certain plan fell through. His philosophical dismissal of the situation: "So there went that."

Before leaving the subject of Mr. Sedaris, I should say that, after all these years of enjoying his writing, I have begun to be aware of a slight flaw in his craft. There’s a slippery quality to the structure of his essays. Every now and then, you begin to wonder: where are we now? how did we get here? That’s because he can slide, sometimes, from one topic to another without good reason. In this book, for instance, you’re reading about medical crises that have hit him on the road and at home but suddenly you’re reading about how his watch gives him signals to stand up at certain intervals. Huh? This has nothing to do with the topic of the essay. An essay on ghosts is interrupted by a vignette that has the author’s dad walking the roads near David’s beach house and hoping somebody will invite him in to watch a football game on tv. As far as I can see, there’s no connection with the subject of ghosts. Later in the same essay, we have the family members relaxing in a spa that some of the sisters have set up – no ghosts in evidence but we come back to them at the finish of the esssay. "Calypso", the essay that gives the collection its title, starts with sociological observations about the US, moves on to art, then the tumour that Mr. Sedaris had removed, then art again, then back to the tumour.

My pointing out this problem with continuity of subject matter isn’t about my being a school-marm scold. It’s something that bothers me vaguely in the reading even when I’m not aware exactly of what’s wrong. I try to accept that Mr. Sedaris is chatting in a friendly way with us readers. It’s as if he’s saying: Hey, this is life! This is how some people – my family members and myself, in particular – have navigated this strange existence of ours. Why should it matter, then, if he slips from one topic to another, the way a person does in conversation, without much warning? The way a person will say: oh, by the way, there’s this too... What you might call a kind of sidebar to the main topic.

I guess the problem is just that some of us readers expect a little more coherence to the structure of a published essay. Blame it on our culture or on publishing tradition for making us a little too retentive.

 

Golden Prey (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2017

Lucas Davenport, our detective, has now left the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and he’s working as a sort of freelance deputy U.S. marshall. He hops around the states, looking into cases that merit his attention. That, of course, sometimes incurs the resentment of the local law enforcement agencies – a situation that provides the kind of political conflict that you have to find in almost every police procedural these days.

What is attracting Davenport’s attention in this book is the killing of the members of a drug gang who were ambushed while counting their loot. The search for the two killers who took off with the money might not exact a lot of commitment from Davenport and his team except for the fact that the thieves also killed the six-year-old granddaugther of one of the drug dealers; she happened to be standing by. A drop of blood left at the scene tips off the detectives as to the identity of one of the killers, a well known desperado. While the police are attempting to close in on him and his accomplice, another team of two killers has been sent out by the drug gang to get their money back and kill the thieves.

In a story that, with its many complications and ramifications, sustains interest well throughout the book, we’re also treated to several interesting details about Davenport’s character. His wit, for instance. When a local deputy marshall tells Davenport that "none of us got that slick veneer you actual rich guys got," Davenport responds: "It’s only a veneer. Underneath, I’m just another really, really good-looking yet humble working cop." Davenport’s Catholicism and his dread of flying come together when he’s fastening his seat belt for a flight and he curses himself "once again for not going to Mass more often than Easter Sunday."

While killing time in a bookstore, Davenport buys a magazine that tells him "how to match his personal coloring to the colors of his menswear." If you're a new fan of Davenport, you might get the impression that wardrobe is a bit of a challenge for him, but his veteran readers know that he, unlike most detectives, loves clothes. 

I appreciated the explanation that Davenport’s modus operandi was mainly about making good contacts. Nothing magical about his detective work. He’d developed a database of shady individuals with whom he had an understanding. "He’d call, they’d talk; if they got in trouble themselves, Lucas would have a chat with a judge, as long as the trouble was minor." That seems more realistic than the kind of prestidigitation that goes on in some detective novels.

Another admirable aspect of Mr. Sandford’s handling of character is that his bad guys seem like real people, not just villains. As in other books of his that I’ve read, we’re following the perpetrators here. The two killers who ripped off the drug gang come across as a couple of guys who, if inclined to bad choices that eventually drive them to desperation, started out like anybody else, wanting a better life and a fair share of happiness and comfort. When one of them, in the final crunch, is bidding a last farewell to his wife over his cell phone, the tone is poignant and moving. In another twist on the motif of bad guys, Mr. Sandford gives us a truly remarkable couple in the two killers who are sent out by the drug gang to get their money back. The two partners in this hit team – an obese young woman and a squirrely little guy – thoroughly despise each other but they’re forced to work together because they’re so lethally effective.

This book takes Davenport around disparate parts of the US so extensively that a reader would do well to have an atlas and a road map handy. At times, it can be difficult to follow the detectives’ strategies if you can’t keep the identities and the directions of different highways clear in your mind.

Besides geography, another huge feature of this story is cell phones. This often occurs to me when reading contemporary mysteries but more than ever in this case: this story would be impossible without the omni-presence of cell phones. It was gratifying, then, to have Davenport himself acknowledge the fact. Near the end of the book, Davenport holds up his cell phone and gives a little speech about how such little gizmos can track our lives and our activities so intimately. "We all know that, but we can’t get away from them. Even crooks know it, and even they can’t get away from them." I like the fact that the author is admitting that this technology is such an integral part of his story. It offsets my thinking that it’s a too-easy plot device.

But I find the final scene of the book somewhat dubious. It involves a meeting with some of the authorities who were giving Davenport static. The scene seems to amount to nothing other than vindictive one-up-man-ship on Davenport’s part. To me, it doesn’t make him look good. I don’t know why an author would want to leave us with that impression of our hero.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com