Dilettante's Diary

Feb 23/19

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
DECEMBER 6, 2019
Nov 10/19
Oct 24/19
Sept 30/19
Aug 2/19
June 22/19
May 26/19
Apr 22/19
Feb 23/19
Jan 15/19
Dec 20/18
Dec 3/18
Oct 3/18
Sept 9/18
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Jan15/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Wife (Movie); Cosi Fan Tutte (Opera); The Sisters Brothers (Movie); Ashley With a Y (Theatre); The Spirituality of Gardening (Spirituality), I Let You Go (Mystery); Stan & Ollie (Movie), Shoplifters (Movie), The Play That Goes Wrong (Theatre), Washington Black (Novel), The End (Novel), Charles Richard-Hamelin (Concert), The Frog King (Short Fiction), What Can You Do with a General (Short Fiction), Wolf Lake (Mystery) and Bad Blood (Mystery)

The Wife (Movie) written by Jane Anderson; based on the book by Meg Wolitzer; directed by Bjrn Runge; starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Karin Franz Krloff, Elizabeth McGovern

If you pay any attention to the current movie world, you probably know the premise of this one. An American writer wins the Nobel prize. He (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife (Glenn Close) and their son (Max Irons) set off for Stockholm in a celebratory mood but problems begin to surface.

Before seeing this movie, I, unfortunately, happened to read something that spilled the big reveal that takes place about half way through the movie. So I wasn’t able to calculate the effect of the surprise that’s intended when that moment comes. But I was noticing various hints of trouble that were developing soon after the arrival in Sweden. There’s the fact that the writer isn’t exactly the most faithful of husbands, as we see in his reaction to a young female photographer (Karin Franz Krloff) who’s assigned to cover his Stockholm visit. And the couple’s son is disgruntled about his dad’s not paying sufficient attention to a short story the son has written. Meanwhile, a pesky writer (Christian Slater) is trying to insinuate his way into the family’s good graces so that he can produce the definitive biography of the Nobel winner.

Through all of this – and worse to come – what matters is Glenn Close’s calm, dignified, persona as the wife. I’m guessing that millions of women will come out of this movie cheering her for showing what it’s truly like for the woman trapped in the role of the supportive spouse to The Big Man. And yet, underlying Ms. Close’s courteous, obliging manner, there is a steely hint of something else simmering and we can’t wait to see what it is. In the history of movies, there may seldom be a case where an actress has turned in such a great performance while saying so little.

Jonathan Pryce, as the writer, is fascinating in his own way. Within the parameters that this character has sketched out for himself, taking into account the compromises that he has made, he is doing his best to be a decent guy. He could obviously be seen as the villain of the piece, and yet he’s a believable, recognizeable person, much like some men we all know.

The sense of reality and authenticity that Ms. Close and Mr. Pryce establish carries through the entire movie. Everything seems exactly real, a true picture of life as we know it – from the gathering of friends at a publisher’s party, to the greetings from the Nobel committee, to the intimate puttering in the hotel room, to the banquet with the King of Sweden – it all feels exactly as it should. Even a delightful cameo by Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern has an arresting sense of individuality and honesty. As a writer who’s trying to cheerfully brazen out her lack of success, this woman has clearly fallen a long way down from the actor’s glory as the Countess of Grantham.

The movie’s so skilfull in catching us up in its web that it blinds us to some details of the story that are a bit melodramatic and perhaps implausible. For instance, there’s the son’s disgruntlement that the dad hasn’t commented on the son’s short story. We’re led to believe that this is the son’s first attempt to be a writer and the first thing he has shown his dad. How likely is that, given that the son appears to be nearly thirty years old?

And then there’s the central problem in the couple’s life together. It makes for great drama and the movie doles it out with gripping detail, but if you stop to think about it, it’s somewhat implausible. Still, it makes for a terrific story and, because of it, people will no doubt be citing this movie as one of the strongest feminist statements ever made in film.

 

Cos Fan Tutte (Opera) music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte; conducted by Bernard Labadie; directed by Atom Egoyan; designed by Debra Hanson; starring Ben Bliss, Johannes Kammler, Russell Braun, Kirsten MacKinnon, Emily D’Angelo, Tracy Dahl; with the Canadian Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra; Four Seasons Centre, Toronto; February 21/19

First things first: musically this show was top notch. Everybody sang beautifully and the orchestra accompanied them appropriately.

But the staging!

Atom Egoyan’s movies have never appealed to me much. They’ve always struck me as being too self-consciously "arty." Too much the work of an auteur, his ego plastered all over them. The same could be said for this production: a lot of brainy ideas. I’m all for modernizations of operas if the innovations bring some new insight to the works, helping us to appreciate them in new ways. Not when the changes cause so much distraction that they seriously interfere with our enjoyment of the work. In this case, far too much mental energy was taken up in the effort to figure out what the hell was going on.

Mr. Egoyan has taken as his guideline the opera’s alternative title: "A School for Lovers." Thus, he says, in his director’s notes, the point of the piece is that Don Alfonso (Russell Braun) is teaching everybody a lesson. The opening scene appears to be some kind of school. But what kind of school is this? The men are garbed in white in a vaguely "anyone-for-tennis" 1930s mode, but the women are in short pleated skirts with knee socks. Everybody’s prancing around two large tables decked with all kinds of bric-a-brac that make the place look like a curiosity shop. Behind them looms an enormous cabinet – about twelve feet tall – with mirrored doors that swing open to reveal a lot more meaningless clutter. (Do we really want to see the conductor in those mirrors?)

In his director’s notes, Mr. Egoyan also says that his production shows that the two young women, Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo) and Fiordiligi (Kirsten MacKinnon) are in on the joke right from the start; they know that Don Alfonso is planning to have their boyfriends, Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (Johannes Kammler), assume disguises to see if they can seduce each other’s girl, so that the Don can prove how fickle women are. Granted, having the girls in on the prank from the get go would be a way of assuaging the misogynistic implications of the libretto. But how were we supposed to twig that the girls did know all along what was going in? Aha! Could that have been the point of that incomprehensible little dumb show involving the two women and Don Alfonso in front of the curtain during the overture? Maybe. But I prefer a show that makes its meaning clear to me in the performing, not one that requires studying a director’s notes beforehand.

There were a couple of things that I did like about Mr. Egoyan’s concept. His making the two girls young and silly helped to put the plot across. (Sometimes, the women who can handle the challening musical requirements are so mature that their falling for this nonsense is scarcely plausible.) And it was a good idea to have the second act open with the two young women getting sloshed on booze liberally served to them by Despina (Tracy Dahl). Not hard to see how a couple of tipsy teenagers would succumb to the nonsense the way these two do.

Aspects of the design were magnificent – gigantic butterflies floating down from the flies, for instance. But other features were extremely off-putting. An ugly reproduction of a Frida Kahlo painting of two women with their hearts exposed dominated much of the proceedings. A bit of research tells me that this double self-portrait reflects the artist’s state after separation from her lover, Diego Rivera, but my brain cannot come up with any way that this could have any relevance to the story of Cosi. For some reason, Mr. Egoyan appears to be obsessed with the fact that one of the women in the painting is cutting a string with a scissors, which causes blood to drip from the string. This required Russell Braun to enact some weird goings-on with an over-sized scissors. To me, this was a case of a director’s fascination with some obscure symbolism getting in the way of the opera. In this wielding of the scissors – as in other moments, as when he was forced to conduct the company with something like a six-foot baton – Mr. Braun looked like an actor who was stoically carrying out some ridiculous business that a director had forced on him.

Kirsten MacKinnon’s "Come scoglio" was marred by a pace that was too slow for the required fireworks and by too much tomfoolery around her. Fortunately, Mr. Egoyan let the background shenanigans stop and everybody stood quite still while Ben Bliss sang the sublime "Un’aura amorosa." Another of the opera’s best moments is the trio singing of "Soave sia il vento," the farewell to the "soldiers" who are heading out to sea. At this point, Mr. Egoyan had children slowly proceeding across the stage with miniature sailboats on their heads. A nice touch, I suppose, if you’re in the mood for a bit of surrealism.

The applause at the end of the show was somewhat less than rapturous, which would seem to suggest that a lot of audience members were as irritated as I was by the staging. But the ovation for Tracy Dahl showed that the was an audience favourite in the way that she used her short stocky body to create physical comedy. Nothing hard to understand about that.

 

The Sisters Brothers (Movie) written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the book by Patrick DeWitt; directed by Jacques Audiard; starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Carol Kane.

I wasn’t thrilled with the book (reviewed on DD page "Fall reading 2015") – although it had some good points – but the movie features two actors who are always worth watching. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play siblings who travel across the US working as hit men for anybody who can afford their price. It’s the mid 1850s and their assignment in this case, following the orders of a mysterious Pooh-Bah known as "The Commodore," is to track down an elusive genius (Riz Ahmed) who claims to have a special chemical formula that you pour into a river to make nuggets of gold shine, thus making them easier to collect. Presumably, the brothers’ job is to torture the guy until he reveals his secret.

The chemist is also being pursued by Jake Gyllenhall but I found it a bit hard to figure out how he fit into the story. That’s only one of the movie’s puzzling aspects. As far as plot goes, this isn’t an easy one to follow. Never mind the mumbled dialogue. Many of the scenes are shot in the dark and we get just fragmentary glimpses of what’s going on. But the main point of the movie isn’t the action so much as the fascinating relationship between the two brothers. Charlie (Mr. Phoenix) is the more brash, aggressive one with a sardonic sense of humour; he also appears to be the brains of the duo. His brother, Eli, is much nicer, as you might expect, given that Mr. Reilly has been called in to play the part. From my reading of the book, I seem to remember that, yes, Eli was more sensitive and more thoughtful but there was still something a bit squirrely and furtive about him. You don’t get those qualities with Mr. Reilly. He’s more of a mainstream, unobjectionable guy. Mind you, he does get a few opportunities to show that he can be tough if necessary, but you always get the impression that this is Mr. Reilly’s upstanding, decent man showing a bit of muscle, not somebody who’s genuinely creepy.

Sometimes, I object to the way that some movies and novels put words into characters’ mouths that belong to our own era, not to the historical period of the work. In this case, though, it’s done with a self-consciousness that adds a bit of spice to the proceedings. For instance, one of the brothers talks about somebody being "victimized." The other brother picks up that word and savours it like a morsel that has a strange but interesting taste. Clearly, they’re letting us know that the word doesn’t belong in this setting and the discussion about it is a way of letting us in on an amusing way that the brothers have of picking at each others’ characters.

Rough hewn as these brothers are, they’re the kind of guys who are forced to look after each other, even to show what might pass for a bit of tenderness. We see them cutting each other’s hair, looking after each other when they’re sick. In the portrayals of these two, the movie gives us a genuine sense of life as felt: the smell, the grit and the grime of two real lives as they are actually lived. A lot of that comes from many scenes of them eating by a campfire and sleeping on the ground with nothing but a blanket for warmth. Eli discovers the new-fangled product known as a toothbrush and he experiments with it, using some tooth powder. When you see his stupefaction at the white foam pouring out of his mouth, you can’t help feeling that this guy was meant for a much kinder lifestyle. The fact that he didn’t get it, might be attributable to his hard-bitten mother, whom we finally see in a stunning cameo by Carol Cane, who made an indelible impression on my memory in a vastly different role: the pathetic waif in Wedding in White from the 1970s.

 

Ashley With a Y (Theatre), starring Ashley Botting and Scott White; Bad Dog Theatre, Toronto; Feb 14-16, 2019

En route to this event, it felt like I was heading for kamikaze theatre. Improv is one thing, but these two performers were going to make up songs on the spot and perform them, based on suggestions from the audience. How could two people be daring enough to do this? Yet, the show, by comic actor Ashley Botting and Scott White, her accompanist, was a huge hit at this past summer’s Fringe and they were presenting it again for those of us who missed it then.

The way it works is that audience members are given a slip of paper on arrival. On the slip is a question like "What is the best thing about the person you like best?" or "What is the best gift you ever gave anyone?" Your answer goes into a bowl and Ashley picks several out, at random, and makes up songs about them, with Scott White improvising a tune at the keyboard.

Granted this is a fiendishly clever feat, requiring brilliant skill with words (and music) but what makes it work is Ashley’s personality. Like some of the best female comics these days, she’s friendly but flippant, sarcastic but sincere. She can be ballsy or vulnerable, as the moment requires. Outright silliness can be laced with social commentary. That makes for lightning-swift changes of mood. The night I saw the show, a sweet lullaby about putting a baby to bed (with a few droll jibes) was followed by a neurotic, hard-driving insistence on someone’s "Devotion" towards a loved one.

Ashley came up with about eight impromptu songs in the one-hour show. A couple of the suggestions came from chats with audience members. Ashley has a personable way of reaching out to people with a deft comic touch. Her humorous rapport with Scott White adds charm to the proceedings.

Running through the show is the spirit of a peppy number that Ashley uses as an opener. The theme of it is "Let’s make it up as we go along." One section goes something like this: "Tonight’s the night to take a chance, if you always walk in straight lines, you’ll never learn to dance." (Not an exact quote.) That helps to put audience members in a jovial, free-wheeling mood. When Ashley reprises the theme song at the end of the show, you feel that it has truly been a worthwhile ride.

An unexpected pleasure for me was seeing a hoard of young people crowd a theatre (albeit a small one) on a cold winter night and laugh their heads off. Apparently, everybody isn’t on their smart phones all the time.

Bodes well for our culture, I’d say.

[Disclosure: I have a friendly connection with someone involved in this show.]

 

The Spirituality of Gardening (Spirituality) by Donna Sinclair, 2005

For committed gardeners, the depths of winter is the time to dream about what’s to come a few months later. Donna Sinclair’s beautiful book takes those daydreams to deeper and more nourishing levels than many gardeners have imagined. Drawing on traditions from various religions and philosophies, Ms. Sinclair shows how gardening nourishes both the body and the soul. Her profound meditations are inter-laced with narrative fragments about her experiences as a gardener: balancing garden work with family life, struggling to keep gift plants from taking over, adapting to the limits of gardening on an inner-city balcony after having free rein in a less urban setting. It gives a reader encouragement to realize that Ms. Sinclair isn’t talking about the spectacular formal gardens such as might be viewed in some public settings; this book is about the gardens that give us great pleasure in the more ordinary context of our daily lives.

The spirit sustaining the book is a sense that came to the author in childhood and has lasted since then: a feeling of being at one with nature. "I believe gardeners yearn to reconnect with Eden," she says. "We are trying to discover a way back to that physical unity with the land still experienced by a few indigenous people, a few monks, a few mystics." I’m glad to say, though, that Ms. Sinclair’s treatise isn’t all sweetness and light. With sober wisdom, she touches on the many factors that imperil our connection with the natural world: pollution, urbanization and climate change.

I think it was Marcel Proust who said something to the effect that what’s most important about a book isn’t so much what it says as what thoughts it brings to mind. That proved to be abundantly true in my own reading of this book. Treasured memories of garden experiences started flooding into my mind, practically from the first page of this book, making me realize that my life has been rich in horticultural delights. The book’s format gives it the elegance of a coffee table book but its content puts it in a more significant category. Still, in keeping with the standards of most coffee table books, it must be said that the photos of flowers and gardens here are stunning.

 

I Let You Go (Mystery) by Clare Mackintosh, 2014

The New York Times review of another book by Clare Mackintosh said that I Let You Go, her first novel, "won an enthusiastic reception." That response was hard for me to understand on my initial impression of the book.

The setting of the opening is Bristol, in south west England, and the mystery amounts to the search for a hit-and-run driver who kills a five year old boy. (No need for a spoiler alert on that point because it’s the opening scene of the book.) A writer friend of mine once said that you must not include the death of a child in your writing if you want to keep readers, but I forged bravely onward.

The two chief investigators are a senior officer and a younger woman whom he’s tutoring in the art. The police procedures strike a credible note, not surprisingly, given that the author’s previous career was in the police. When the cops are not exchanging information about the case, though, the dialogue is excruciatingly dull. This is especially true in the case of two people who aren’t cops. Their romance barely rises to the Harlequin level.

Like nearly every other detective in fiction these days, the senior guy has trouble at home. His wife resents his spending so much time on his work and not enough time with his kids. That has led to trouble with one of the kids. In this case, though, the wife is herself a former cop who longs to get back to work. That makes for a slight novelty, as compared to other detective yarns.

About half way through the book, I could begin to see why this one was greeted with that "enthusiastic reception." In the kind of twist that is becoming popular in detective fiction, we suddenly discover that someone we’ve been following isn’t who we thought we were following. The book soon develops into an excoriating depiction of spousal abuse, a subject that Ms. Mackintosh appear to be an expert on. We get a full picture of the insane jealousy that can fuel the rage. Another couple of starling revelations are lying in wait and a surprise ending may have the resonance of classic Greek tragedy for some readers. Others may find it implausible and hokey.

 

Stan & Ollie (Movie) written by Jeff Pope; directed by Jon S. Baird; starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Ella Kenion

It’s the 1950s and we’re getting a look at the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the twilight of their joint career. Having coasted downhill since the peak of their popularity in the late 1930s, they’re touring England to drum up interest in a film they’re hoping to make. According to Stan Laurel’s vision of the film, it’s going to be a spoof on Robin Hood, involving lots of their usual shenanigans.

At first, they’re finding it hard to excite the members of the public who think that the comic duo have long since retired. Gradually attendance at their live show improves, which is not to say that they don’t run into some major disappointments. Such downturns give us a hint of a venerable trope: the clown in tears. In a quiet, unconventional way, Stan & Ollie thus turns out to be something other than the usual rah-rah showbiz biopic. Instead, it’s a poignant study of the personal connection between two artists who can’t work separately even though they sometimes can’t stand working together. Ultimately, it’s a touching story of male bonding.

As Oliver Hardy, John C. Reilly (with the help of loads of prosthetic fat) carries on with his custom of showing us really nice men who express their inner hurt not by ranting and raving but by the slightest wincing on their kindly countenances. Steve Coogan, in the role of Stan Laurel (who seems to be the brains behind the act), shows that he is a master at taking bad news with politeness and composure that hide a devastation revealed only in the depth of his eyes.

In many ways, this is an old-fashioned movie that glories in the atmosphere of theatres, movie studios and ritzy hotels as they once were. Another of the vintage apects of the movie is the loving attention to characterization in supporting roles and cameos. Even a receptionist in a hotel or an office becomes a memorable character. One of the most appealing actors in a supporting role is Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont, who is managing Laurel and Hardy’s British tour. Handsome and charming, he is the perfect example of the kind of promoter who is constantly on the verge of coming across as something of a con artist but who just manages to maintain an air of cordiality and sincerity in the face of daunting prospects. Another unforgettable character is Ida, Stan Laurel’s wife. As played by Nina Arianda, she is a domineering, vain, egotistical beauty (with a strong Russian accent) and yet, in spite of all that, there is something delightfully intriguing and entertaining about her. You want to see more of this woman.

Just a couple of caveats. One flaw in the movie, in artistic terms, is the laborious expository dialogue that’s sometimes required to fill us in on past developments. The movie threatens to bog down at these points. My only other reservation about the movie is the way it shows audiences responding to Laurel and Hardy’s schtick. When the tour gets rolling well, we see full houses convulsed in laughter at the pair’s simple antics. Were people that easily amused back in the day? Having not been there myself, I guess I’ll have to take the filmmakers’ word for it.

 

Shoplifters (Movie) written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; starring Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Sakura And, Mayu Matsukota, Jyo Kaairi, Miyu Sasaki

If you haven’t read anything about this movie beforehand, it can be difficult to tell what city it’s taking place in, even what country. That’s typical of the movie’s style of minimal exposition. Stuff just keeps happening, with very little explanation. We get short snippets of everyday life. No scene has more than about ten lines of dialogue. And the narrative style is eliptical. For instance, there’s a shot of people caught in a glaring light at night. Only later, do we realize that they were being apprehended by the police.

Throughout the viewing, it may eventually come clear to a viewer – or maybe not – that we’re in Japan, in a modern city with high rise buildings and all the usual amenities. But the people we’re watching aren’t living in the lap of luxury, to put it mildly. Their abode could be described as a two-room garage or shed that’s built in a sort of patio behind an apartment building. There are no chairs in the home; people sleep and eat on the floor. The place, crammed with stuff – bottles, pots, food, clothing, cushions – is crying out for one of those de-cluttering experts. But the conglomeration of objects, mostly photographed in warm, subdued colours, makes for wonderful still life pictures. Another of the artistic merits of the movie is the almost total lack of music, with the result that it’s all the more effective when we do hear some.

The people who inhabit this shed are an older woman (Kirin Kiki), a middle-aged man (Lily Franky) and woman (Sakura And), a somewhat younger woman (Mayu Matsuoka) and a boy about seven or eight years old (Jyo Kairi). The story begins when the man notices a five-year-old girl (Miyu Sasaki) in the street who appears to be hurt and hungry; there’s some suggestion that she may be fleeing an abusive home. The man brings her home for a meal, the older woman becomes concerned about the child’s injuries, she ends up spending the night with them and, as things evolve, she appears to be living with them.

After a bit, her new family discovers, via the tv news, that a search is on for the little girl but that spark of plot flickers out before it catches on. The movie’s great merit, for the most part, is that it immerses us in a way of life very different from the one most of us know in North America. These people we’re watching aren’t exactly destitute; they’re living mostly off the older woman’s pension. The man sometimes gets work as a day labourer but he injures his leg on a job; there’s some discussion about whether he would have been better off to break it so that he’d get more compensation. The middle-aged woman who is his partner appears to work in a restaurant. The younger woman works in what I’d call a sex shop, for lack of any better term (not being familiar with these establishments). It’s a place where pretty young women cavort erotically in front of what appears to be a one-way mirror, while men watch from the other side.

Increasingly, odd incidents are casually dropped into the everyday-ness of these lives. The old woman pays a call on her ex-husband’s new family. The employer of the forty-ish woman tells her and another employee that the two of them have to decide which one will hang onto the job. A surprisingly tender encounter takes place between the sex shop worker and one of her customers. And yes, the man has taught the kids to shoplift. Most of their grabs are small items like bags of candy and bottles of shampoo but they do once make off with two fishing rods. Later, when asked why he taught them to shoplift, he answers matter-of-factly that he didn’t have anything else to teach them.

While all of the characters in this ensemble are excellently acted, I found something particularly interesting about the man. At first he comes across as a scrawny, somewhat scuzzy, not very likeable person, but gradually you discover a playful, almost charismatic side to him. In some ways, you might say that one of the movie’s main points is the revelation of the good human being in this not very honourable man.

The more prominent message of the move starts to emerge about half an hour before the ending. Suddenly, plot points start poking up like mushrooms on a damp lawn. All kinds of complications come to light. Many things, we find, weren’t what we took them to be. Authorities – police, social workers and such – turn out to be spiffy and fashionable, not at all like the people we’ve been watching. It’s all very gripping but, by this time, I was finding the movie – at two hours – too long. I’m left wondering if the movie might have been more effective if some of the slice-of-life stuff had been cut so that we could get to the drama more quickly.

 

The Play That Goes Wrong (Theatre) by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; starring Brandon J. Ellis, Evan Alexander Smith, Yaegel T. Welch, Peyton Crim, Scott Cote, Jamie Ann Romero, Ned Noyes, Angela Grovey; Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Jan 23/18

It certainly does go wrong.

The premise is that we’re seeing an amateur theatre company enacting one of those murder mystery chestnuts: everybody’s stranded in a lodge during a fierce snowstorm and a body turns up in the library. Things start going south with an onstage door that won’t open, a corpse that keeps moving, props that go missing. The chaos escalates to the point that: a swinging door has knocked actors flat about ten times; the stage manager has to step in to replace the ingenue who has been knocked out; two women are trying to play a part simultaneously; the sound technician (a guy) takes a brief stab at the role of the ingenue; a woman is jumping one speech ahead of a man in a dialogue; several actors get stuck on one page of the script through five repeats; people are trying to respond in a frightened way to a dog that isn’t there; the set is collapsing all around them.

Supposedly, this British import has people dying laughing on both sides of the Atlantic. The production was almost completely sold out for its run in Toronto. But are the patrons getting the laugh riot that they’re paying for. I’m not sure. Granted, the show elicited some strong belly laughs from the whole house at the performance I attended. For much of the show, though, the laughter that I was hearing was of the good-natured, tee-hee-hee indulgent kind, along the lines of: we know we’re supposed to be having a good time, so let’s show that we are. And it was coming mostly from the orchestra seats, not the balcony where I was sitting. Was it that the people in the higher-priced seats felt that they had to enjoy themselves more? Or was it that those of us in the balcony weren’t close enough to the proceedings to be drawn into the game fully?

Given the decidedly mild amusement that the show offered, I’m glad that I didn’t pay top price for it. For me, the production was interesting mainly in terms of stagecraft. I kept wondering what kinds of gags – visual and verbal – they were going to come up with next. The ingenuity amazed me but the proceedings didn’t strike me as all that funny.

Maybe that’s because I find that comedy works best when played seriously. In this case, the acting style was so broad, so farcical, that we knew we were watching talented professionals pretending to be inept and clumsy. If, however, we had been able to believe that these actors really were amateurs doing their best to overcome horrendous mishaps – if we’d seen them sweating a bit – the turmoil might have been more engaging.

On the other hand, my tepid response may have been due to the fact that I had trouble buying into the premise. Having had some acting experience, I felt that no theatre company – amateur or professional – would have tried to carry on with such a catastrophe. I kept wanting to call out: Enough already, people!

Or maybe it’s just that slapstick isn’t my thing.

 

Washington Black (Novel) by Esi Edugyan, 2018

When it was announced that Esi Edugyan had won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller prize for this novel, her shock and surprise made it clear that she hadn’t expected to win (having already won the prize once). The videos of the event, showing Ms. Edugyan’s ingenuous, modest response, won her a lot of fans. It follows, then, that any Canadian with an interest in her or his country’s literature ought to give this book some close consideration.

It’s the story of Washington Black, starting with his status as an enslaved boy working on an estate in Barbados in the 1830s. The plantation, owned by a British family, is administered by one of the sons of the family. When the man’s younger brother, Christopher, who is something of an amateur scientist, arrives at the estate, he takes an interest in young Washington. Discovering that Washington has a lot of talent, including a knack for beautiful drawing, Christopher (known as "Titch") takes him under his wing and teaches Washington a bit of reading and writing. Titch then employs him as an assistant in his attempt to build a flying machine along the lines of a hot air balloon. The resulting bond between the boy and the British man provides the main narrative thrust of the book. Their exploits over the following decades take readers from Barbardos, to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, Holland and Morocco.

An itinerary like that helps to show that this is the kind of book that appeals to people who like a story that rolls on and on, constantly turning up fascinating new developments and dramas. There’s a Dickensian quality to the tale about a person’s struggle through difficult odds to establish himself eventually as a young man who can stand on his own. Coincidences abound, as in the protagonist’s bumping into acquaintances unexpectedly, continents away from where they might have been expected to be found. It’s the kind of book that gratifies readers who like a Scheherazade-type of yarn-spinning.

I, however, prefer a book that has a less fantastic slant. I like to feel that I’m reading about real life as described by people who sound believable. This wasn’t easy for me in the case of Washington Black. Part of the problem is his diction as a first person narrator. In an attempt to create a 19th century tone of voice for Washington, Ms. Edugyan has chosen a style that is erudite and sophisticated. At one moment, Washington tells us "I felt a rope of fear uncoil in my stomach." (He apparently is so enamoured of this metaphor that he uses it again, virtually word-for-word, some 200 pages later.) He’s the kind of narrator who’s inclined to say "I ventured" instead of "I said." Another example of his arch style: "Less than an hour had passed, though it felt a lifetime, and we sat in the scree at the base of Corvus Peak, the crickets already creaking in the darkening air."

Washington (or Ms. Edugyan) has a tendency to get carried away with what is apparently meant to be impressive perception. Of one man, we are told: "He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season." Really? Could you actually distinguish those three scents on someone? When a man has shot and killed himself, Washington says of the fragments of the man’s clothing in the trees: "The rags were like the radiance of some terrible star, bright and emanating from something already extinct." Rags radiating like stars? Come on, Washington!

Some readers, I gather, have lauded the book for what they consider to be its very fine writing. To my taste, this kind of prose is more about an author’s showing off than about creating a believable character. By way of some explanation for the prose style within the context of Washington’s character, I kept waiting to find that this former slave had somehow ended up studying English literature at Oxford. That never happened; he did eventually tell us that he had read some fine books on an ocean voyage, so maybe that was meant to account for his lofty literary tone, but it seems a bit of a stretch to me.

What also interfered with my enjoyment of the book, in terms of its plausibility, was that 21st century sensibilities kept creeping in. Washington expresses feelings that sound to me like the responses of an enlightened man of our own time. For instance, when he is still enslaved in the Barbados, he notices that another slave, a girl of just eleven years old, has become pregnant. Having thought of her as "beautiful and inviolate and God's own angel," he tells us that he "felt a wrenching inside, a sadness so bracing I had to look away." Is it credible that a boy of about the same age as the girl would be capable of expressing such acute tenderness in the face of her plight? Further on,Washington tells us that some "healing" seemed to take place while the two British brothers were reminscing about their deceased father. I have no doubt that such a chat could do the two men some good, but isn’t it only recently that we talk of "healing" in such circumstances? Looking back at his time in slavery, Washington says: "We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish." True, but the thought sounds like it’s being spoken by somebody who’s well acquainted with 20th and 21st century self-help literature.

In Nova Scotia, Washington acquires a female friend who has some views that sound way ahead of her time. She claims that Titch, Washington’s mentor, has been merely using him to nourish his sense of his own goodness. A startling insight, to be sure, but it sounds like it comes from a 21st century author who’s acquainted with psychology rather than a 19th century person who was, as far as I know, uneducated. This same woman, on hearing about an explorer whose instruments were stolen in Tahiti, sympathizes with the Tahitians who had to "suffer the condescension of these strange arrivals and their frightening tools." An admirable sentiment, to be sure, but isn’t this appreciation of the rights of indigenous peoples more characteristic of our own time than of the 19th century?

Over time, Washington develops an interest in marine life, so the book includes a lot of detail about crustaceans and such. I kept wondering how many readers would relish that kind of information. I didn’t find it engaging. But I did finish reading the book out of sheer curiosity – I wanted to find out what happened to Washington – so that tells us something about the author’s narrative skill. And it certainly is sobering to be reminded of the injustice and suffering inflicted on enslaved peoples. Washington does come up with one insight that made me think. He tells a white abolitionist: "You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men." I wanted to believe that someone like Washington might actually have said that but, for the most part, the way the story was told made me feel that the writer was trying too hard to include ideas that would win the approval of readers who are plugged into contemporary social issues.

 

The End (Novel) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2011 (English translation by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett, 2018)

As the title would suggest, this is the final installment in My Struggle, the series of six autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard that have made such a splash on the international literary scene. (I’ve enjoyed the other five very much but haven’t yet had a chance to review them on Dilettante’s Diary.) Given that this volume doesn’t appear to be in great demand at the Toronto libraries – there are only six holds on 41 copies in the system – I’m guessing that some of Mr. Knausgaard’s most ardent fans have been intimidated by the book’s 1153 pages.

The New York Times review of the book, by Daniel Mendelsohn, allowed that it has some merit but the reviewer seemed disgruntled about the volume of Mr. Knausgaard’s output. The tone of the review made you wonder if the reviewer might, perhaps, have been a little ticked off at another writer’s getting so much attention for writing about himself. The review seemed to ask: how could anybody’s life be worth that much print? I wanted to respond: but this work is unique, no other writer gives you so much detail, so much intimate information, about what life is like for a human male on this planet.

Another way of putting it would be that Mr. Knausgaard’s narrative voice is so compelling that he makes you want to read all this stuff about his life. A key to his oeuvre can be found in this statement about the importance of all the interactions that seem trivial at the time they occur:

....one day I would look back on my life and this would be what I would look back on. What then had been insignificant, as weightless as air, a series of events dissolving in exactly the same way as the darkness dissolved into the mornings, would twenty years on seem laden with destiny and fate.

But now, having read The End (with some judicious skipping), I am inclined to agree with Mr. Mendelsohn: this is too much! A person’s interest cannot quite sustain the long trek. There are times when we get detailed accounts of a morning with the kids: what everybody ate for breakfast, how Mr. Knausgaard made coffee, read the paper, then went out on the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Do we really need all that? At times, we want to applaud a buddy who tells Mr. Knausgaard: "You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know. Kids do that. Adults can put their utterances through quality control first." (Is Mr. Knausgaard wryly acknowledging the point by reporting this comment to us?)

And yet, it’s not that the narrative flags. I still find Mr. Knausgaard’s descriptions of the world around him, his accounts of his interactions with family and friends, engaging. How intimate does he get in his accounting of himself? Well, he often mentions urinating, sometimes commenting on the colour of his output. Bowel movement – something not many authors tell about themselves – is implied in a section where he talks about reading a magazine, having pulled down his trousers and sat on the toilet. Although he describes lots of sex in the earlier books in the series, the closest he gets in this book is where he talks about him and his wife going to bed, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling "bare and defenceless." Given that the next sentence starts with "Afterwards..." I think we’re meant to assume that sex occurred.

Further in the department of self revelation, we get a few glimpses of Mr. Knausgaard’s attitude to his appearance: "I looked like a has-been heavy-metal musician rapidly heading for his fiftieth birthday. Oh, the fleshy face, the chubby cheeks, the deep furrows, and that wispy beard." He tells us about one moment where he felt happy, although happiness "wasn’t in my nature." (Surprise! Surprise!) He wrestles with what seem to be true and false presentations of himself that he can never reconcile satisfactorily.

All of that makes good reading. The trouble is that much of the book – possibly a third or more of it – is given over to philosophizing about things like names, religion, literature, art and war. I do not find Mr. Knausgaard’s writing in that vein so enjoyable. Granted, he does make fascinating observations about many things; the outpourings of his intellectual brilliance can be astounding (if not easily assimilated). One arresting aperu of the less dazzling kind comes in the context of some reflections on the brutal upbringing that may have led to his father’s dismal end. Mr. Knausgaard wonders, then, if it could be possible that "being a good person is the same as being a lucky person."

Valuable as those insights are, the long-winded sentences in the philosophical sections of the book can try your patience. For example:

The world of the inner ‘it’ is that of biology, where thoughts are interactions between cells, emotions are chemical and electric impulses shooting through the nerve fibres, existing alongside all other bodily processes, which lie beyond their scope and cannot think or feel on their own, unless communications between the DNA spiral and the cell is a form of thinking at the most fundamental level of life, the one’s duplication in the other, but no matter what it is or what it is called, it takes place at such depths within us that we neither feel, sense, understand nor see it other than as a result, which is to say that which is brought forth within us.

In the more accessible parts of the book, the more narrative ones, one of Mr. Knausgaard’s main themes is family life: first the stresses and the joys of childcare, then the anguish consequent on his wife’s bipolar condition. On the subject of raising kids, one quickly notes that in Mr. Knausgaard’s household, as in many around the world, kids are mesmerized by tv; turning on the boob tube is guaranteed to calm them down when they’re getting obstreperous. One of the most fascinating observations about parenting comes in a conversation between Mr. Knausgaard and a buddy: "We can’t control life, only our thoughts about life. So everything that has to do with our kids is actually about us. It’s the tyranny of good intent."

The other main subject matter of the narrative is Mr. Knausgaard’s rise to fame as a writer and how he deals with it. In that context, he devotes considerable space to a discussion about how friends and family members have responded to his portraying them as their real selves and identifying them by their real names. Accusations that he was lying about some details of family history had him wondering if he was actually mis-remembering things. The problem with writing about real people, as he sees it, is that the freedom to write the truth doesn’t sit well with consideration for others. He acknowledges that this has caused difficulty for some of them. (In most cases, the publishers insisted that the people named read the work before publication.) As a result of a legal challenge launched by an uncle, Mr. Knausgaard was not able to mention the name of his father, the uncle’s brother, in the series.

As grounding for this issue, Mr. Knausgaard gives much thought to the question of how real life is used in fiction. It’s a fascinating subject but I’m not sure that he resolves it satisfactorily. He says something to the effect that, with so much media swirling around us, everything begins to seem like fiction, so "the job of the novelist can no longer be to write more fictions." Hence, he says, that if he were to write a novel "it would have to be about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body...."

To the end, however, I was somewhat puzzled about whether we were to take this work as fiction or autobiography. The nearest I can come to an answer is that the writer uses people he knows as his characters, he presents their circumstances and their inter-actions as they are in real life, but there may be some creativity in chronology and in the reporting of scenes and dialogues, since he obviously couldn’t be expected to remember exactly how everything happened and what was said. Also, it is to be expected that there would be a certain artistic shaping of the material which wouldn’t correspond exactly to historical events.

Another main subject of the book is the life of Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism. As a prelude to this discussion, and leaning on the work of the anthropologist Ren Girard, Mr. Knausgaard discusses, with references to sources like the Old Testament, how violence is transmuted into sacrifice. Mr. Knausgaard goes some way back in time to show that the political developments in Germany in the early part of the 20th century were somehow the result of the Industrial Revolution’s undermining the importance of the individual life and focussing on the collective. (I’m struggling to condense hundreds of pages of text into a brief synopsis.) Much of this discussion revolves in a somewhat esoteric vein around distinctions between the ‘I’ the ‘We’ the ‘You’ the ‘They’ and the ‘It.’ In assessing Hitler’s mindset we come up against the absolute and the ideal versus the relative and the unique; the undifferentiated one, the ideal utopia, versus the differentiating, multiple real.

The biographical material on Hitler makes for some of the best reading in the book. For a reader who doesn’t know much about him, it’s intriguing to find out about Hitler’s love of his mother, his worship of women from a distance, his failure as an artist, his domination over his friends, his love of the military and the gradual discovery of his charisma as a public speaker. One of the most interesting points that Mr. Knausgaard makes – by contrasting different biographies of the man – is that it’s intellectually shoddy to judge a man’s early life as completely despicable just because we know that he turned out to be a monster in the end. In what amounts to a chilling caution about today’s political scene, Mr. Knausgaard highlights Hitler’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of propaganda, since "what a person feels always eclipses what they might think, an emotionally based opinion is felt to be exactly what it is, something one knows, as opposed to a rationally based opinion, which is quite differently relative in nature, being open to objective, reasoned argument and thereby capable of being changed by such argument."

And how does this long historical digression relate to Mr. Knausgaard’s life story? Perhaps it’s meant as a way of explaining why Mr. Knausgaard gave his series of books the title My Struggle, an echo of Hitler’s Mein Kempf. Occasionally, Mr. Knausgaard’s treatise on Hitler will touch on a related issue in his own life, as, for example, the note that certain of his father’s characteristics were like some of Hitler’s traits, but this doesn’t appear to be the main point. I think the point may be that, unlike the effort of totalitarian regimes to downplay the individual life, Mr. Knausgaard’s work is meant to celebrate one individual life in all its messy glory. Mr. Knausgaard says that we cannot view other people as a nameless mass, we cannot succumb to the depersonalization required of a movement like Nazism, if "we listen attentively to the story of a day in the life of each and every one of them." That’s what he’s been asking us to do: to listen to the story of a day – or a few thousand – in the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard.

 

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Piano), Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 3, 2019

Winner of the silver medal in the 2015 International Chopin Competition, Charles Richard-Hamelin opened his Sunday afternoon recital with two Robert Schumann pieces: Arabesque in C Major, Opus 18, and Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17. Schumann not being one of my favourite composers, I don’t feel qualified to say much about the playing. To me, Schumann’s music is somewhat shapeless but Mr. Richard-Hamelin certainly produced some very beautiful passages. The second half of the program consisted of four Fryderyk Chopin Ballades: No. 1 in G Major, opus 23, No. 2 in F Major, opus 38, No. 3 in B flat Major, opus 47 and No. 4 in F Minor, opus 52. The playing was technically flawless, absolutely crystal clear, pure and luminous. You could sometimes hear different voices, which isn’t always the case in the playing of Chopin. However, I have heard the music played with more passion and poetry.

As a brief encore, M. Richard-Hamelin played something that sounded like an excerpt from a J.S. Bach cantata. It had the feel of "Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring" or "Sheep May Safely Graze." Exquisite, meticulous playing filled the hall with a sweet, plaintive, singing voice.

 

The Frog King (Short Fiction) by Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker, Nov 26/18

As far as I know, this is the first time that The New Yorker has published a short story that contains explict gay sex. But that’s not my reason for remarking on the story. It’s a beautiful, poignant story about the love between an American man who was teaching in Sofia and a Portuguese student he met there. They decided to spend the Christmas holiday in Italy. And what makes the story so touching? I don't think a spoiler alert is called for here because nothing is stated specifically; it's just a hint I'm picking up, that things did not end well. And how does the author imply that without saying so? I think he does it by building to a climactic point in the expression of the two men's love for each other, then suddenly cutting back to a spectacular display that they had witnessed in a public square in Bologna on New Year’s Eve. And what is the effect of that sudden flashback? To me, it feels as if the writer is saying: you don’t want to hear how things ended, so let’s stop on the memory of that glorious celebration.

 

What Can You Do with a General (Short Fiction) by Emma Cline, The New Yorker, Feb 4/19

A middle-aged couple are welcoming their young adult offspring home for Christmas. We’re following the events through the eyes and mind of the dad as he wanders through the days in a state of perpetual befuddlement about how things have turned out. While dealing with all the prickly situations that keep coming up, he can’t stop mental flashbacks to simpler times, when everybody seemed happy in each other’s company. I can’t think of any piece of fiction that conveys so vividly – and yet in such an understated way – the odd combination of disaffection and fondness that plagues families of adult children.

 

Wolf Lake (Mystery) by John Verdon, 2016

Once again, Dave Gurney’s old pal, the wise-cracking Jack Hardwick, has roped him into investigating a puzzling case. A psychologist who practises therapeutic hypnotism has treated four patients who have subsequently committed suicide. Each of them, before dying, reported having a particular nightmare, the details of it being exactly the same for each person. To the cops, it looks like the psychologist somehow seeded the idea of suicide in the minds of these patients. It’s the psychologist’s sister, a woman who looks after her brother’s affairs, who came to Hardwick looking for help, because she’s sure her brother is innocent.

I’ve had reservations about some of John Verdon’s mysteries, one of my major complaints being the way Guerney’s wife, Madeleine, is always so resistant to his putting himself in dangerous situations. Not that this sort of thing would be unlikely to occur in a detective’s marriage. In fictional mysteries, however, it has become a tiresome clich as a way of adding tension. In this book, though, Madeleine’s moodiness turns out to stem from some trouble in her past. Her attempt to resolve the issue becomes a sub-plot of the book. It’s related to the main plot only in a tangential way but it does make for legitimate "filler."

This book amplifies Gurney’s character in that we learn that "he would be the first to admit that he had a serious deficiency in the empathy area, that the suffering of others often failed to touch him." And, as a nod to the kind of problem that plagues his marriage in other books, he does acknowledge that there is always a certain conflict between his roles as husband and as detective.

As intriguing as the main mystery is, and as clever as the solution turns out to be, this book is slightly encumbered by one of the hoariest of mystery clichs: the winter storm that strands everybody in a remote lodge where the electricity has a tendency to fail and evil is on the prowl. Nevertheless, we do encounter some fascinating and well-researched information about dreams and curses and about the differences between beliefs and facts.

 

Bad Blood (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2010

This John Sandford mystery features Virgil Flowers, the younger detective who works for Lucas Davenport, the star of most of Mr. Sandford’s books. I’m beginning to like Virgil more than on first encountering him. His characterization is a bit thinner than Davenport’s, though. Flowers doesn’t have the family connections that round out Davenport’s life, but he’s an amusing, attractive and smart guy. A female sheriff that he’s teamed up with here comments that he doesn’t look like a cop. Virgil’s reply: just because a guy’s a cop, it doesn’t mean he can’t be good looking. His knowledge of the bible (his father was a Lutheran minister) serves him well here. As a maverick investigator, Virgil may be capable of bending the rules but he has his limits. "I’m up for an occasional breaking-and-entering, but serious perjury...." No.

What the sheriff and Virgil are investigating here is a complicated case, starting with three murders that seem to be connected. It soon becomes apparent that a fourth murder that happened a year ago in the same rural area of Minnesota is probably part of the same dastardly scheme. We know early on who most of the murderers are – in fact, we’re following some of them – but the book takes us through the steady plod of an investigation in the way that is so absorbing in all of John Sandford’s books.

Among the various tactics used, one thing gave me pause. Virgil has a habit of settling down in the local caf and letting the patrons in on a bit of news about the investigation. His intention is that this will motivate them to provide some helpful information, but I found it odd that a cop would confide in civilians this way. Like so many detectives in fiction, Virgil and his sheriff partner have an infallible knack for knowing when somebody’s lying. (Does anybody have that skill in real life?) However, a set-up that’s meant to entrap one of the perpetrators is cleverly staged. Towards the end, there’s a shootout that is, as usual, nearly impossible to follow play-by-play. But then there’s a scene that strikes me as original: a victim has two abusers at gunpoint and she’s conducting a mini "trial" to see whether she should shoot them. Virgil wants to get them into the hands of the law but she insists that he provide a defence for them, if he can think of one.

As in the Davenport mysteries, Mr. Sandford keeps plugging for Diet Coke. However, he does have one character here saying "I can’t stand that shit" and opting instead for Pepsi. Maybe that’s a bit of self-deprecating humour, wherein the writer is acknowledging his Coke obsession? Another humorous touch that I enjoyed was one character’s saying about another one: "If that boy were any dumber, he’d have to be watered twice a week."

There are times in the book when somebody makes a comment that distinguishes this kind of mystery from a fictional one. For instance somebody says it’s not like the tv mysteries where one brilliant sleuth solves everything. No, in "real" cases like this one, the solution is a matter of team work, everybody’s insights coming together. That sort of distinction is almost becoming a clich in mysteries nowadays, but I find it a useful reminder. In a similar vein, there’s Virgil’s welcome observation at the end of the book that he can’t figure out how to think about some of the stuff that went down, not everything is solved, justice isn’t done in every respect, but "a lot of the things that happened in the world couldn’t be adequately or logically settled."

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com