Dilettante's Diary
DECEMBER 3, 2018
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DECEMBER 3, 2018
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Highs 'N Lows of 2014
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March 21, 2014
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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May 10/13
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March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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Fall Reading 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
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May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
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Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
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Art Toronto 2011
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July 28, 2011
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TOAE 2011
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
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Fall Reading 2010
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TOAE 2010
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
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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
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Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
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Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
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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
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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: Boy Erased (Movie); The Only Story, Dunbar, and The Shoe on the Roof (Novels); Nutshell (Novella); "Cattle Praise Song," "Waugh," "Flaubert Again" and "Show Recent Some Love" (Short Fiction); My Brilliant Friend (Novel); Extreme Prey, Escape Clause, Gathering PreyDeadline, Silken PreyStolen Prey, Buried Prey, Storm Prey, The Hangman's Song, Eyes of Prey and Sandrine's Case (Crime/Mysteries); This Won't Hurt A Bit (Memoir)

 

Boy Erased (Movie) written by Joel Edgerton, based on the book by Garrard Conley, directed by Joel Edgerton; starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Britton Sear.

As a seventeen year-old, Jared is sent to a "conversion camp" run by a religious organization that is determined to stamp out his homosexuality. To Jared’s father, a Baptist preacher, that seems the only possible response when it comes to light that the boy is gay. Jared experiences more than a little horror in this draconian regime that involves some pretty weird discipline. (The movie appears to be set in the 80s or 90s.)

The movie, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, runs the risk of being a grim, one-note theme, what with the constant hectoring by the camp’s leaders. Don’t go looking for any humour. You might catch one little joke if you don’t blink. We do get a bit of relief in flashbacks to Jared’s previous life, but the script doesn’t give Lucas Hedges, in the starring role, much to do other than stumbling through the proceedings in a kind of daze. A little more personality emerges, however, when he’s pushed too far.

The true stars of the movie, perhaps not surprisingly, are Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, as Jared’s parents. Ms. Kidman looks like a scrawny, fifty-year-old who is trying to channel Marilyn Monroe. Yet, there’s an undeniably warm humanity under her slightly ditzy exterior. Russell Crowe dishes out the pious platitudes with such sincerity that you keep wondering: can this really be Russell Crowe??? His final scene with Jared packs emotional dynamite, not because of histrionic pyrotechnics, but because complicated feelings are kept so expertly in check, the depths of them only hinted at.

As the leader of the conversion program, Joel Edgerton (also the director and writer of the movie) maintains a tricky balance between seeming like a tyrannical sergeant major and a decent human being; there’s an edginess about him that hints at some inner conflict (as confirmed by the on-screen notes at the end of the movie).

When a movie is based on a person’s true story, you’re sometimes stuck with certain things that happened but which can be difficult to translate to the screen in a meaningful way. That’s the problem with the crisis that brought on Jared’s being sent to the conversion camp. It was hard for me to understand all the dynamics of what was going on and why it had the repercussions that it did have. The incident confused me about the character of Jared. But I guess that can happen when you’re dealing with real life and real people, right?

 

The Only Story (Novel) by Julian Barnes, 2018

This short novel (254 pages) is one of those books that it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about without saying too much. So let’s keep the plot details to this: Paul, a proper British lad, nineteen years old, of middle-class origins, falls in love with Susan MacLeod, a married woman and mother of two daughters, who is nearly thirty years older than he is. What attracts him is that she’s fun, free-spirited and she doesn’t take the hidebound mores of their community seriously.

What follows is a tale that deserves to be ranked among the great love stories of all time. It’s gripping, not so much because of what happens, but because of Paul’s thoughts and impressions as he looks back on the affair fifty years later. He’s constantly comparing his youthful emotions and impressions with the more sober observations of an older man. In his youth, Paul was convinced that if love was strong enough, it was the answer to everything; it could overcome any obstacle. You can guess how that idealism looks to the older man. And yet, he hasn’t abandoned his belief in what Susan once told him: that every person has his or her love story, even if it was a fiasco, and that it’s "the only story" for that person.

The worlds of the young man and the older one are conveyed with absolute conviction. You feel that you’re living there with him at all times. The people he meets at any point are stunningly real and believable, particularly Joan, a hard-bitten, gin-soaked friend of Susan’s who offers the young Paul acerbic but kindly friendship. There’s gentle social satire about the milieu of the village where the lovers live and the etiquette of the tennis club where they first met.

The last fifty pages, consisting mostly of Paul’s analysis of the relationship, can make for slow reading because his thoughts are so complex and multi-layered. He hardly ever posits one observation without immediately offering a contrasting one. Every page has its contradictions and paradoxes. But they’re all worth perusal, given the narrator’s perspicuity.

Only one thing about the book bothers me: Paul’s apparent neglect of his parents. After a certain point, he never speaks of them in recalling his life of the next fifty years, except for some brief mention of them in the final pages. It seems incredible to me that a man would be so alienated from his parents. They weren’t bad people; they were decent parents within their own limitations. If Paul was going to separate himself so conclusively from them, I think he should have given us some reason.

 

Dunbar (Novel) by Edward St. Aubyn, 2017

A billionaire media tycoon named Dunbar (he has Canadian roots) has been declared mentally incompetent and consigned to a psychiatric hospital in England. Two of his daughers have conspired with a doctor to make this happen because they are trying to take control of their father’s empire. He has never loved them. He truly loved another daughter, from a different wife, but he has rejected this daughter because she would not agree to taking a share in his business. But she still loves him and she is trying to rescue him from the evil designs of the other two women.

The resonances with King Lear are multiple and obvious, but it wasn’t until I finished the book and read the author’s note that I realized that the book is one entry in the Hogarth Press’s re-telling of Shakespeare’s stories in modern contexts. (Margaret Atwood wrote one based on The Tempest.) I don’t know Lear well enough to comment on all the possible similarities in the two stories. There is a character who stands for the Fool: an alcoholic who’s always mocking Dunbar. And Dunbar encounters a kind, helpful soul while wandering on the heath. But it appears to me that complications here go far beyond those in Shakespeare’s version of the tale. For instance, the doctor who conspires with the two wicked daughters is actually plotting with some other financier to betray them.

For me, one problem with the book is that the financial machinations are difficult to follow. Stuff about trust funds, taking a company public or private, being on the board or not being on the board. That doesn’t matter to the essential meaning, but a reader who can understand all this wheeling-and-dealing would get more out of the book than I did. Another possible flaw is that the two wicked sisters are barely distinguishable in character, as far as I could tell, apart from a few differences in their circumstances. (Is this true also of Goneril and Regan?) The author lays it on so thick, the women are so evil in their scheming, that their wickedness becomes almost intolerable. But then it starts to be funny. There’s almost a satirical spin to the way the author makes their selfishness, their egotism, their relentless avarice so extreme.

On the other hand, the author’s treatment of Dunbar could be said to be extreme in the opposite direction. His conversion as a result of his ordeal, the redemption of his character and his foreswearing his heartless, tyrannical ways is beautiful, but almost too good to be true. (Did Lear experience such a redemption?)

As you might expect from Edward St. Aubyn, the author of the "Patrick Melrose" series of novels, the writing is brilliant in Dunbar. The originality of the metaphors is stunning. Just one sample:

The leafless trees, with their black branches stretching out hysterically in every direction, looked to him like illustrations of a central nervous system racked by disease: studies of human suffering anatomised against the winter sky.

The opening chapter, however, is difficult to understand until you know what’s happening. Dunbar and his alcoholic friend are having a disjointed, off-the-wall discussion about how to escape from the psychiatric institution they’re imprisoned in. Their wacky way of communicating isn’t easy to follow right off the bat. At times, the writing reminds me of Muriel Spark’s brittle comedies: terse, clipped and mordantly witty. Eventually, though, you find that Mr. St. Aubyn does care more deeply for some of his characters – especially Dunbar – than does Ms. Spark who seems to push them around like puppets under her command.

As for using Lear as a palimpsest, I’m not sure of the merit in that initiative. I suppose it’s interesting to say that if Lear were happening in our day, it might be something like this. But does that give us any insight into Shakespeare’s masterpiece? Not that I can see. Maybe Dunbar would stand just as well on its own without any reference to its illustrious predecessor.

 

The Shoe on the Roof (Novel) by Will Ferguson, 2017

Thomas and his friend, Bernie, are medical students, specializing in neurology. They’ve devised experiments ostensibly to find out if a sense of God is inherent in people’s brains. But actually, the tests are just ways to meet attractive females. One of them, Amy, a young painter, has become Thomas’ girlfriend. But now they’ve had a falling out. Her brother, a student for the priesthood, is confined to a mental hospital because he thinks he’s Jesus Christ. As a way of winning Amy back, Thomas tries to cure her brother. This involves confronting him with two other men who claim to be Christ. Thomas figures this will force all three of them to drop their illusions. In this project,Thomas has to cope with interference from his father, a famous psychiatrist.

Given that this is a comic novel by the well-known humourist Will Ferguson, the proceedings include a lot of outrageous escapades on the part of Thomas, his friend Bernie, and the three delusional men. I found some of the shenanigans too laboured and ridiculous to read carefully. But the book isn’t without merit. There are some genuinely amusing scenes. And Thomas grows on you, in his hapless way. The book also offers bonbons such as this comment from a crusty character: men give love in order to get sex; women give sex in order to get love.

What I like most about the book is that, presumably as a result of extensive research on Will Ferguson’s part, it comes up with some intriguing ideas about religion, mental health and psychiatry. For instance, there’s the question: is there such a thing as mental illness or is it simply a matter of misbehaviour resulting from wrong beliefs? If so, should the person in question be forced to confront his or her errors head-on?

One of the questions that I found most interesting was the one that Bernie and Thomas kicked around: which is the true self, the one when you are alone or the one when you are with other people? Most people would say it’s when you are alone that you are your true self. Thomas disagrees. He says that a person isn’t a person except in relation to someone else. Hence, the true test of the self is how we act when we know we’re being watched. "We are not our raging ids."

 

Nutshell (Novella) by Ian McEwan, 2016

A pregnant woman has sent her husband packing and has taken up with his brother. The two of them are plotting to murder the husband.

Nothing particularly original about that story. (Shakespeare, anyone?)

Except that, in this case, the story is being told by a foetus in the woman’s womb.

This, then, is one story that calls for a huge suspension of disbelief. How could an unborn infant know what’s going on? How could it understand the words it’s hearing? But Ian McEwan almost makes the premise believable. (Mind you, he doesn’t stretch the conceit too far – the book consists of not quite 200 short pages.) The infant gets its sense of the larger world from radio programs that the mother listens to. It imagines the look of things it can’t see. It savours the effects when she drinks booze. It feels the pressure on its head when her bladder is too full.

But is there anything to like about the book other than the cleverness of the concept? Yes, characterization, among other things. You feel the infant’s contempt for the uncle’s boorish egotism as compared to the father’s intelligent sensitivity. The complexity of the mother’s feelings comes through eventually. There’s some sly social commentary in the infant’s comments on the state of world affairs as perceived in those radio programs. There are even some neat twists in the way of a murder mystery.

My only problem with the book is that the infant sometimes gets carried away with voluble discursions on this and that. This sort of thing would probably appeal to a reader who likes to admire bravura writing but there were times when I wanted to tell the kid to stop the brilliant ratiocination and get on with the story.

 

New Yorker Notables

Talk about new voices! Consider the following two.

"Cattle Praise Song" (Short Fiction) by Scholastique Mukasonga, The New Yorker, November 12, 2018.

The narrator is talking about looking after the family’s cows in Rwanda when he was a child. His duty was to take special care of one particular cow. The tale is told in simple, straight-forward prose (translated from the original French), that sounds like a person narrating fond memories without any literary artifice whatsoever. It’s an absorbing pastoral picture but you wonder: where are the essential elements of fiction: where’s the conflict? where’s the drama? Eventually, it does become apparent that (spoiler alert) the family was forced to flee their home during the persecution of the Tutsis and they had to find out what life is like without their beloved cows. But even that transition is handled subtly and almost incidentally. The final moments of the story offer some compelling insight – in an under-stated way – from the narrator’s point of view as a man.

 

"Waugh" (Short Fiction) by Bryan Washington, The New Yorker, October 29, 2018

It takes a while to get into this one. Gradually, you realize that you’re hearing the story of a young man who shares a flat with some men who, like himself, are gay hustlers. They seldom speak coherent thoughts; you’re left to infer their meanings much of the time. It doesn’t seem like you’re in the hands of a writer, merely somebody who tells about life as it is for him. Plenty of what they call "street cred." Lots of what we used to call "the nitty-gritty." But it feels much more real than a lot of polished writing. The somewhat scattered story begins to cohere around the character of the man who has invited the others to share his flat, and what emerges is a poignant tragedy.

 

"Flaubert Again" (Short Fiction) by Anne Carson, The New Yorker, October 22, 2018.

This is not a new voice but, for me, it’s a new experience of this writer. I’ve never been able to understand much of the poetry from the distinguished and much acclaimed Anne Carson. However, this short fiction fascinates. It starts out with a woman trying to decide what she is going to write about. Soon her thoughts start spinning off in all directions, bits of this and that, assorted memories and reflections, every now and then coming back to the question of whether or not any given thought is worth writing about. To me, it looks like an exercise in deconstructing the notion of written fiction. It leaves you wondering what is really accomplished – if anything – when we spin tales for each other. Although that may seem bleak, it strikes me, after several re-readings, that the overall effect is quite funny. A fond tribute to the flighty side of human nature.

 

"Show Recent Some Love" (Short Fiction) by Sam Lipsyte, The New Yorker, November 19, 2018

Isaac, an employee of an advertising agency in New York, finds himself in an awkward situation because the head of the agency, who at one time was Isaac’s step father, has been turfed because of sexual improprieties. In an era of tricky political winds, it would be risky for Isaac to show too much – if any – sympathy for such a miscreant. The story amounts to a brillliant slice-of-life piece as it gives us glimpses of how Isaac proceeds precariously through encounters with his disgraced boss, his mother, his wife and daughter, and a couple of street people. But perhaps the most astounding aspect of the story is the speech by the former boss, in which he takes on the role of the devil’s advocate, defending himself with flaming indignation. People accuse me of a misuse of power, he asks? But power is what the workplace is all about. It’s capitalism. It’s America!

 

My Brilliant Friend (Novel) by Elena Ferrante, 2012 (English translation by Ann Goldstein)

There’s been a lot of media buzz about the author of this book because an Italian journalist claims he has found out the true identity of the writer behind the pseudonym of "Elena Ferrante." Some argue that the journalist is justified in "outing" the author who, in their opinion, has no right to capitalize on this ploy of anonymity. Others insist that the writer has every right to remain unknown if that’s what she – or he – wishes. (More later on what we at Dilettante’s Diary think about that.)

This is the first in the author’s series of novels set in Naples. Here we get the development of the friendship between Elena, the narrator, and her pal, Lila, from their childhood through to young adulthood. But to speak of the relationship between them as friendship is like saying that vodka is a liquid. In this relationship, there’s much more than what any two ordinary childhood chums experience. It’s intense, symbiotic at times, maddeningly inconstant, competitive, argumentative, passionate, adventurous and frightening.

At first, I found the reading compelling in the way of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels. You’re finding out everything about the life of these two people, in miniscule detail. The confined, almost cloistered, life of their Naples neighbourhood – which feels like a village within the city – comes off the page with vitality and colour: the scraps with parents, the rivalries among friends, the spats with the teachers, the comings-and-goings of the vegetable seller, the porter, the grocery man and the poet.

While the minutiae of life in this enclave makes for good reading, the main point of the book is the relationship between Elena and Lila. Elena seems to define herself, for better or worse, by comparison to Lila. At times, Elena’s analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses can become very complex:

I saw that she was agitated, aggressive as she always had been, and I was pleased, I recognized her. But I also felt, behind her old habits, a pain that bothered me. She was suffering, and I didn’t like her sorrow. I preferred her when she was different from me, distant from my anxieties. And the uneasinesss that the discovery of her fragility brought me was transformed by secret pathways into a need of my own to be superior.

Passages detailing this sort of examination of Elena’s sense of herself vis a vis Lila recur again and again throughout the novel. Occasionally, Elena seems to see Lila as gifted with preternatural vitality.

Yes, I thought, maybe she’s changing, and not only physically but in the way she expresses herself. It seemed to me – articulated in words of today – that not only did she know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.

The ultimate success of the book depends on whether the reader is on board with this relationship between Elena and Lila. In that respect, I’m sorry to say that the book doesn’t entirely work for me. I get it that Elena is obsessed with Lila and I like Elena’s character. But I get tired of Lila’s moody, erratic brilliance. It seems like she’s supposed to be one of those intriguing female characters who are meant to be fascinating in movies and novels but who more often strike me as, not only irritating, but too exaggerated to be believable.

I find it hard to see why Elena is so enslaved by her devotion to Lila. Is it a lesbian thing? Near the end of the book, there’s a hint of that when Elena sees Lila naked for the first time. But there was nothing to suggest any such dynamic earlier in their story. So what’s the bond between the two girls? Maybe it’s hard for a male reader to get this relationship. Perhaps women can appreciate it better than I can. Otherwise, I can’t understand the book’s tremendous popularity. (My library copy is from the eighth printing.)

But I did like the book better than another one by the so-called Elena Ferrante. My review of Troubling Love (DD Fall Reading 2010) – now that I look back at it – cringes at the author’s view of the world. While her (or his) contempt for humanity doesn’t come through so strongly in My Brilliant Friend, there is still a touch of the author’s grim view of our species. People in this neighbourhood have very little joy, or love or pleasure. Fights are always breaking out. Fathers are daily threatening to kill their daughters or break every bone in their bodies. The streets echo with screaming and yelling from the homes. Objects thrown in fury come flying out of windows. At a wedding, the bride’s and the groom’s families glare at each other spitefully across the room.

Worse still, the main plot catalyst in the book – apart from the dynamic between Elena and Lila – is the macho strutting of the males: their violence, swagger, arrogance and air of entitlement. They think it’s their god-given right to dominate the females, to subordinate them, to tyrranize them. I found myself thinking: why would I want to read any more about these people who are clearly stalled at an arrested stage of evolution?

Which leads to the question of the author’s anonymity. It strikes me that the author may be writing about people she or he has known. How else would anyone invent such a bleak view of human beings? Take one of the teachers in the book. When a former pupil comes to invite the teacher to her wedding, the teacher refuses to acknowledge the girl, says she doesn’t know her and sends her away. Why? Presumably because the girl didn’t continue her education as the teacher had hoped she would. Such outrageous hostility wouldn’t make sense in a work of complete fiction. It feels like something the author must have witnessed.

Ergo, the author doesn’t want to reveal his or her identity, lest the real people pictured in this book would rise up in rage against him or her. I agree, then, with the people who say that this author has the right to remain anonymous.

 

Extreme Prey (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 2016

I’m beginning to understand better what it is that I like so much about John Sandford’s mystery/crime books. Since you’re usually following the bad guys as well as the detectives, there’s no big secret about the identity of the perpetrators. These are definitely not whodunnits, then. That’s a kind of relief. You’re not tied up in knots trying to figure out the identity of the killers. You don’t feel that the author’s jerking you around by keeping some big secret. He’s just telling you what happens as it happens.You can enjoy watching how the machinations of the perpetrators and the investigations of the authorities cross paths from time to time. It gives you a god-like perspective. Not that there’s a complete lack of suspense. Some of the climaxes of the books can be terrifying. And little surprises come along.

A few traits of Mr. Sandford’s writing:

  • That old clich does crop up once or twice, wherein the detective has a hunch but he just isn’t sure what it means, feels that he’s failing to grasp the meaning of something nagging at the back of his brain. Corny, but it does help to pull you along.
  • The writer always tells you what a setting smells like as soon as someone steps into it. Do most people respond to places this way? Or is Mr. Sandford’s olfactory sense a lot keener than mine?
  • You have to wonder if Mr. Sandford has a contract with the Coca Cola company. Almost every time Lucas Davenport stops anywhere, he reaches for a diet Coke. (His associates are addicted to other kinds of sodas.) Why would an author introduce that sort of thing if he weren’t paid for doing so? Or is the soft drink habit much more prevalent in the US than in the kind of lifestyles that are more familiar to me?
  • The minor characters, various cops and associates, often don’t stand out as individual people, even the ones who recur in several books. But maybe this doesn't matter. They're like characters who have bit roles in movies, merely serving certain functions. We don't really need to know them.

In Extreme Prey, Davenport is asked by the Governor to look into threats against a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. The threats are coming from a mother and son who belong to one of those grass-roots organizations that feels that the elite are running the country into ruin, that the ordinary people are being ignored. The mom and son are planning to kill the progressive female candidate, so that a more conservative candidate will be chosen.

The action is set in Iowa and, along with all the usual pleasures of the Davenport pursuits, this one shows how he got in good with the political higher-ups and how this led to his being appointed a US marshall. I felt that the motivation for the killing was weak; it was hard to see how that mother and son would be motivated to such violence but the mother is described as someone who is smart but not intelligent: she has a clever grasp of some things but she can’t think things through; she can’t deal with complications. Everything to her is black and white, good or bad. That strikes me as a good analysis of a certain kind of character.

 

Escape Clause (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 2016

Two Amur tigers (very rare) have been stolen from the Minnesota zoo. Virgil Flowers (Lucas Davenport’s colleague) is asked to find them. Since the assumption is that the tigers’ parts are being harvested for Chinese medicines, pressure is on to find the tigers before they’re killed. Meanwhile, Sparkle, the sister of Virgil’s girlfriend, Frankie, is investigating the unfair treatment of immigrant women in a canning factory. She encounters vigorous resistance from the factory owners and their henchmen. This doesn’t have much to do with the main plot, except that Frankie gets beat up when thugs mistake her for Sparkle because they spot Frankie driving Sparkle’s car.

There’s a lot of stuff, which borders on racism, about the Chinese reliance on hocus-pocus medicine. One problematic issue, from my point of view, is that Sparkle’s boyfriend is a priest who says he’s celibate for some months and not for the other months. I suppose there are priests who live that way but introducing the situation here seem gratuitous. What’s the point? He only has about ten lines of dialogue in the book. The ending, however, offers a clever and quite appropriate revenge on the mastermind behind the tiger theft.

 

Gathering Prey (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 2015

Lucas Davenport’s adopted daughter, Letty, has a large role in this book. A university student now, she makes friends with a young man and woman whom she meets while they’re busking. Letty eventually finds out that the young man has been abducted by a cult-like group that lures people with the promise of putting them in movies and then kills them in grisly, ritualistic fashion. Led by their Charles Manson-type leader, this band of about twenty crazies travels the country, finding their victims in carnival-like gatherings of latter day hippies. Most of the book is about Davenport’s attempts, following Letty’s urging, to find these killers and stop their perfidy.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as most other Sandford books. Letty is supposed to be a ballsy young woman but I found it hard to feel any sympathy for the dangerous interventions that she undertakes, contrary to her father’s best advice. And there isn’t much investigation in this story. One of the things I like about most of the Sandford books is the gradual, plodding interviewing of witnesses, adding up points of evidence and so on. In this case, it’s mainly a case of trying to track the cult members as they travel through the states of the upper mid-west US. The ambiance of these hippie gatherings is off-putting as compared to the more ordinary settings of most of the Sandford books. Near the end of the book, one shoot-out lasts for about fifty pages. It may satisfy people who like a lot of violence in their reading but I found it nearly impossible to follow the action involving several cultists and many law enforcement personnel spread around several buildings in a tiny village.

Another feature of this book that gives the impression of a lower quality of writing: a lot of prosaic to-ing-and-fro-ing. People exchanging banal and unnecessary comments, explanations of trivial arrangements that we don’t need to hear about. A lot of filler, in other words.

 

Deadline (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2014

This is another one of the John Sandford crime stories that features Virgil Flowers as the main detective. Initially, he’s asked by a friend to look into a dog-napping epidemic in a rural area. It appears that thieves are stealing dogs and selling them to reseach facilities. But then, because he’s in the area, Virgil is drawn into the case of the murder of a small town newspaper reporter. Seems the reporter was digging into the financial crimes of the local school board. Meanwhile, a redneck who’s cooking meth in the hills is found murdered. Is there a connection between that and the killing of the reporter? For the most part, we know who the killers are, but it’s intriguing to watch how Virgil tracks them down. Something of a playboy, thrice married, he’s not as engaging a character as his boss, Lucas Davenport, but one of the pleasures of the book is the vivid depiction of the somewhat grungy setting.

 

Silken Prey (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2013

Child porn is found on the personal computer of the incumbent Republican senator. The guy who placed it there is found dead. The Democratic candidate who’d hired him to do the dirty on her opponent turns out to be a case study in Machiavellian narcissism. Her crimes are all carried out, of course, by her henchmen. One interesting aspect of the book is that the governor, even though he is a Democrat, wants Davenport to look into the case because he feels that the Republican senator needs fair treatment.

 

Stolen Prey (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2012

Four family members – mother, father and their two kids – are found brutally tortured and murdered in their posh home. The dad ran a small business that sold Spanish software. That brought the lethal attention of a Mexican drug cartel. Given that this Sandford book involves a rather complicated unfolding of plot, it would be unfair to say any more except that three Mexican hit men are interesting characters, particularly the youngest one, still in his teens, who has a religious bent.

 

Buried Prey (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 2011

The bodies of two young girls who had been abducted several years ago have been found under the cement floor of a house that is being demolished for redevelopment of the area. Lucas Davenport had been involved in the original investigation into the disappearance of the girls. He felt unsatisfied with the handling of the case and it has haunted him ever since. A flashback, consisting of about one third of the book, takes us back to the days of that investigation. In the process, it’s interesting to see how Davenport was learning to be a detective and we see the origins of his friendship with Del Capslock, who became his long-time associate.

But this part of the book lacks some of the complicated inter-twining of threads that make most of John Sandford’s books so compelling. The cops simply fasten their attention on a schizophrenic as the likely culprit. Davenport feels guilty that he didn’t pursue his doubts about the resolution of this case, so he undertakes a new investigation these many years later. It provides all the complications that are so absorbing in John Sandford’s books.

 

Storm Prey (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2010

Three desperadoes break into a hospital’s pharmacy and steal piles of drugs for re-sale on the black market. In the process of the theft, a pharmacist is accidentally killed. Lucas Davenport’s wife, Weather, happened to see the thiefs’ van leaving the hospital parking lot. The criminals know that she got a good look at one of them, so they are intent on eliminating her as a possible witness. This makes for tense consequences.

Weather, Davenport’s wife, features more in this book than in some others, because of her involvement in a prolonged operation for the separation of conjoined twins. Initially, the operation has to be postponed because of the theft of the hospital’s drugs; then the operation is extended over several days because of medical complications affecting the twins. This leads to some cringe-making descriptions of medical procedures – more than a reader like me could read comfortably. But the information was relevant to the story because the on-going operation gave the criminals plenty of opportunity to try to attack Weather.

 

The Hanged Man’s Song (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2003

This one features Kidd, a friend of Sandford's, who occasionally works for him. It’s about the murder of a guy who acted as a hub for a secret group of hackers. Kidd, being a champion hacker in his past (but now a professional artist), is drawn into the mystery, along with LuEllen, the cat burglar who, in later books, will become his wife. The murdered guy’s laptop is missing. Turns out it contains top secret government info, which is gradually being leaked with disastrous consequences. I didn’t especially like the characters of Kidd or LuEllen and the book deals far too much, for my taste, with hacking and specialized computer wizzardry.

 

Eyes of Prey (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 1991

This 1991 book was just the third installment in what became the long series of Lucas Davenport novels. The crux in this one is that two men have made a pact whereby each one will commit a murder on behalf of the other one. That way, they each get rid of their enemy but they each have a solid alibi for the time of the target’s murder. Given that the murders are carried out in similar ways, the fact that the cops don't know that there are two murderers makes the cases particularly puzzling.

One of the murderers is a small-time actor whose life has been unhappy, partly because his face was disfigured by burns. The other murderer is a medical doctor who has a penchant for gouging out the eyes of his victims, even when that requires digging up the ones who have already been buried. Meanwhile, this doctor wolfs down unbelievable quantities of mood-altering drugs.

In an introduction to the 2007 paperback re-print of the book, Mr. Sandford explains in a rather cavalier, jokey way that sometimes an author, when striving for effect, simply has to go for a gross-out. Hence the eye-gouging doctor. He then says that readers – especially women – were pleading with him for a reappearance of this creep. Not me! The man is so crazy and so odious that it spoiled the story for me.

One other problem with the book: the role of Elle, Davenport’s friend who has become a nun and a psychologist. Davenport turns to her for utterly unbelievable explanations of how people have behaved and predictions of how they are going to behave. She even encourages him in the ridiculous attempt to shock a suspected murderer by passing himself off as the dead man. Maybe this trope of the psychologist who could perform magic was relatively new in 1991 and, perhaps, on that basis, we can accept it in this book even though it has become a crime show clich.

What I can’t accept is the portrayal of the woman’s religiosity. Mr. Sandford has her wearing a habit with a rosary dangling at her waist and, in moments of stress, she will grab the rosary, kiss the crucifix and start tolling the beads. Presumably Mr. Sandford would not have included this nun character unless he is interested in Catholicism. If he is, he should know enough not to have an American nun in 1991 looking and behaving as if she is some refugee nun from behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Sandrine’s Case (Mystery/Crime) by Thomas H. Cook, 2013

The first-person narrator, an English prof in a small US college, is telling us about his trial for the murder of his wife. She had Lou Gehrig’s disease and he claims she committed suicide. The book shows the small town’s resentment of the college people who, the townies believe, are living cushy lives. It’s also a good courtroom drama. The interventions of the prosecutor, the defence and the judge are apt, although there’s no great surprise or coup de grace as in Michael Connelly’s courtroom scenes.

But I found the writing hokey in many respects. The deceased woman, as seen in flashbacks, never appears or speaks except in an enigmatic, oracular way. Granted, she knows she is dying, so maybe we can allow a bit of dramatization in her husband’s memory of her, but she never seems anything like a real person. Always this Delphic voice. Also, I got tired of the device wherein the narrator keeps lapsing into flashbacks during his trial. Granted, it’s a useful tactic for the writer’s telling the story, but it becomes too repetitive. The narrator’s lawyer has to keep reminding him to stop daydreaming and pay attention to the court proceedings.

The book is pretentious, notably in its meaningless division into "Parts," plus divisions of these parts into "Days" – again, completely meaningless. Examples of the over-writing include:

Clayton, himself, could not have looked more surprised to find me at his door, but rather than a sudden burst of ire his eyes gave off a great weariness, and he seemed to me withered less by what April and I had done to him than by the dirty, cruel, bottom-feeding nature of life itself. It was a look of nearly transcendental disappointment.....[my elipsis] The rug had been jerked from beneath his feet, and below that a trap door had opened, and he seemed, as he stared at me silently, still to be falling through black, starless space.

Clayton eased back and the chair itself seemed to wrap its ancient arms protectively around him.

She came up from behind me as I got out of my car, came up out of the shadows, like something from the deep, that shark one forever fears lurking beneath the waves.

She stared at me in that beggarly way, her shredded inner life hanging from her like flaps of skin.

Her muscles seemed to shear away from her bones, everything buckling, warping, so that she abruptly collapsed into a quivering mound of flesh, her cries now soft and childlike, the whimpering of a stricken infant.

And so it goes. It could be that the author merely wants to pull my emotional strings but the main feeling I get is that he is trying too hard to show what a marvellous writer he is. If you have a good story, Sir, please tell it without all the fancy writing.

 

This Won’t Hurt A Bit (Memoir) by Vicki Gabereau, 1987

This book found its way to me through a sale of library discards. I thought it was going to be a typical memoir – hopefully with lots of humour, given the author’s reputation as an entertaining talk show host. There is humour, but the biographical narrative that opens the book takes up only twenty-eight pages. There’s some autobiography scattered through the rest of the book but most of it consists of transcripts of Ms. Gabereau’s interviews with famous people. Inevitably, the interviews lose some of their zip when written down, sort of like champagne left out of the bottle too long. A few of the characters who do come off the page are Dolly Parton, Barbara Cartland, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Morley Callaghan and his son, Barry (interviewed together). And you do pick up some interesting tidbits about the broadcasting business. Who knew that British celebrities usually expect payment for giving interviews?

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