Dilettante's Diary

May 26/19

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

Reviewed here: Long Shot (Movie), Dialogues des Carmlites (Opera), Color and Light and Cut (Short Fiction), Enlightenment Now (Psychology/Sociology), Wanderer (Novella), Run Away (Thriller), Bring Me Back (Mystery), Holy Ghost (Mystery), All Quiet on the Western Front (Novel)

Long Shot (Movie) written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Serkis, Randall Park, Tristan D. Lalla, Alexander Skarsgard, Aladeen Tawfeek.

Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), the US Secretary of State, has just discovered that she has a shot at being her party’s Presidential nominee in the next election. At a swanky party, she bumps into Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), whom she’d babysat when she was an idealistic teenager. Fred’s a radical, left-wing journalist now, but he’s just left his job because his paper was bought by a right-wing tycoon. Charlotte checks out Fred’s writing and hires him to provide some humour in her speeches. So he accompanies her on her world tour aimed at getting other countries to sign on to her highly ambitious treaty to protect the environment.

This being a "romcom," you can imagine how things develop. Of course, there have to be obstacles to overcome. One big one arises when Charlotte’s tempted to water down her treaty because she needs the current President’s endorsement for her bid for the nomination and he’s being pressured by corporate types to scuttle the treaty. Fred, needless to say, is enraged.

Romcom or not, it almost goes without saying that Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen are intended, at first glance, to make for a very odd couple: her beauty and finesse up against his schlubby awkwardness; it’s almost too ridiculous, too contrived. And yet, the two make it work. Ms. Theron manages to show that there’s a genuine, sensitive human under the teflon glamour and style. It has been a while since I’ve seen Mr. Rogen in a movie and I find that he’s maturing well. It’s not just the touch of grey in his beard. A certain gravitas is more noticeable now; that fits with his role here as a crusading journalist.

But he still has plenty of kooky humour. When he trims his beard in preparation for a big public appearance, Ms. Theron compliments him on having shaved his neck. In telling her "all the way down my back too," he looks like a little boy boasting to his mother that he’s wiped himself after going to the bathroom. One of his most endearing lines comes when they realize that the optics of their affair could threaten her political prospects. Fred and Charlotte are considering whether he could be hidden around the White House, as in the case of Marilyn Monroe and JFK, but Fred opines: "I’d rather be Lady Bird, because he did, after all, put a ring on her finger." [not exact quotes]

The person who’s most concerned about those worrisome optics is Maggie (June Diane Raphael). A woman who’s almost always on hand in a role that could be Executive Assistant, Maggie makes no secret of her anxiety about what a scuzzy type like Fred may be doing to Charlotte’s chances. Maggie has a tight facial expression that seems to say she detects a distinctly unpleasant odour whenever Fred’s around. And yet, to the credit of Ms. Raphael, she somehow makes the character of Maggie not as odious as you might expect. You end up feeling a certain sympathy for her as a woman in a difficult situation.

Some other characters don’t come off so well (no fault of the actors). The current President of the US (Bob Odenkirk) is a clueless jerk who wants to quit his job so that he can start a career in movies. And then there’s the Canadian Prime Minister (Alexander Skarsgard). Charlotte has been dating him a bit and he would obviously be the more suitable partner for her, politically speaking. He’s handsome but he’s a shallow twit. Granted, there may be some political satire intended here, but wouldn’t the story work better if he actually were an admirable person? Then Charlotte’s preferring Fred would be more meaningful.

There’s a certain entertainment in the behind-the-scenes finagling and scheming, what you might call the showbiz side of politics. And there’s no denying the amusement in a scene where Charlotte’s trying to handle an international crisis when Fred has gotten her stoned. But other aspects of the movie seem to show that the scriptwriters couldn’t decide whether they were trying to create a pleasant comedy that’s somewhat believable or a ridiculous farce. In the opening scene, for instance, Fred leaps from a window to escape an angry group of white supremacists, lands flat on his face on the sidewalk two storeys down and gets up with nothing but a tiny scratch on his face. At the party where Charlotte and Fred first meet as adults, he topples down a long staircase, landing yet again, on his kisser. His hoodie isn’t deemed suitable for a formal event in Sweden, so Maggie takes him out and gets him dressed in an outlandish national costume: baggy pants, loose blouse, floppy tie and huge hat bedecked with flowers. How are we supposed to believe that anybody – even someone as fashion challenged as Fred – would submit to such humiliation?

Like so many movies these days, this one leans on a lot of gross sexuality for impact. The fact that the filmmakers keep going for the cheap laughs makes me feel that they’re pitching the movie to somebody other than me. That does tend to interfere with the enjoyment that the movie might otherwise offer.

 

Dialogues des Carmlites (Opera) by Francis Poulenc; libretto by Francis Poulenc, based on the play by Georges Bernanos; conducted by Yannick Nzet-Sguin; production by John Dexter; starring Isabel Leonard, Adrianne Pieczonka, Erin Morley, Karen Cargill, Karita Mattila, David Portillo, Dwayne Croft; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Live in HD transmission, May 11, 2019

You might wonder why a person would want to spend a sunny spring afternoon in a theatre watching a grim drama about nuns being guillotined in the French Revolution. In fact, it seemed that a lot of regular opera goers were taking a pass on this one. The theatre where I saw the show was only about two-thirds as full as usual.

Several things drew me to the show, in spite of some reservations. I’d heard parts of it on the radio and found the music somewhat mezmerizing. Also, it was one of the few operas sung in a language that wasn’t English but which I could understand a fair bit of (French, in this case). And the simple fact that I’d never seen the piece made me feel that, as an opera-lover, I should give this one a chance. After all, Francis Poulenc is one of the few composers who was working in my lifetime (this piece premiered in 1957) and whose music strikes me as fairly listen-able.

Still, there was some wariness about the religiosity, particularly in the scene around the deathbed of the old Prioress. I didn’t want to be subjected to a lot of torment and torture about loss of faith and abandonment by God. And that final scene, with the nuns proceeding solemnly, one-by-one to the guillotine, might that be a bit too much?

The Met made it clear from the opening moments that this was going to be markedly different from the usual opera experience. We did not see the conductor, Yannick Nzet-Sguin, come into the orchestra pit in a spotlight, welcomed by enthusiastic applause. In the darkened house, the music began and the curtain opened on a stark set, consisting only of white tiles forming a large cruciform shape on the floor. (Not sure how that visual effect was achieved; either by an aerial camera shot or the stage was steeply raked.) On that shape, were the black-robed bodies of about fifteen nuns lying prostrate, evenly-spaced, their arms outstretched in prayer. As the music progressed, they gradually rose in unison and drifted off into the surrounding darkness.

Throughout the production, a fluid style of staging, with minimal props and a feeling of symbolism, kept scenes flowing seamlessly one from another. Thus the first act of the opera evolved in a brisk, expeditious way that kept the proceedings from seeming turgidly melodramatic. First there was the hint of trouble about Blanche (Isabel Leonard), her carriage having been mobbed by a hostile crowd, then her plea to her father (Dwayne Croft) to let her enter the convent, then the interview with the Prioress (Karita Mattila) who warns her that the convent is not a refuge for the fearful, then a scene with the nuns doing chores, and finally the death of the Prioress. In the scene where Blanche and the young Sister Constance (Erin Morley) are ironing, Constance’s cheery, optimistic faith makes for, not exactly comic relief, but a slight lightening of the mood. And the scene that immediately follows – the death of the Prioress – turns out not to be too ponderous.

The rest of the opera works better in theatrical terms, I’d say, because the tension is wratcheted up, now that we know that the nuns are directly threatened by the encroaching terror of the Revolution. That sense of a community under seige always makes for great drama. (I was reminded of the movie Of Gods and Men, which was based on the true story about the monks in Algeria who were killed by terrorists. The movie was reviewed on the DD page dated March 11/11.) Strangely, though, I did not find the opera’s ending as moving as expected. Having heard it on the radio, it had struck me as unbearably poignant the way the chorus of the nuns’ voices grows thinner and thinner, as each one is guillotined off-stage, until you hear the final nun singing all alone. Somehow, that effect didn’t quite come off in this staging. It seemed to me that there was too much music happening. I didn’t clearly hear that one plaintive voice rising bravely.

As for Poulenc’s music, the orchestration is amazingly creative and inventive; it establishes mood very well. It’s not the kind of music, though, where you can expect recognizable arias. It’s more like a drama with music. In this sense, it’s somewhat Wagnerian. Through most of the opera, the orchestration is harsh and strident, in keeping with the tone of the story. But it does become lush and tender in moments, as when the dying Prioress is advising Blanche to keep her simplicity. One aspect of the work that struck me as somewhat unusual is that there were several passages without any singing; the performers were simply moving around the stage to an orchestral background. In an odd way, that sometimes made the story-telling more eloquent than the use of a lot of words.

All the Met singers were excellent, of course, but I was particularly struck by David Portillo, who has just two scenes as Blanche’s brother. He is such a good young tenor, his voice bright, clear and very strong, with no wobble, that I am wondering why I haven’t heard more of him. The only slight quibble that I have about Isabel Leonard as Blanche is that she may be too beautiful with her high cheekbones, her lustrous eyes, perfect teeth and long eyelashes. It’s hard to see this statuesque beauty as having the fragility and vulnerability that Blanche is supposed to have.

One strange thing about the production: the nuns’ habits looked absolutely authentic, as far as I could tell, except that in close-ups, you saw that the white linens around their faces had openings around their ears with a sort of mesh over them. None of the many nuns that I grew up around needed any such openings for their ears. Were they necessary so that the singers could hear the orchestra better? Of course, the openings probably weren’t visible to the audience in the house. Maybe this was one of those little anomalies that cropped up only because of the presence of the cameras.

 

New Yorker Notables

Color and Light (Short Fiction) by Sally Rooney, The New Yorker, March 18, 2019

Sally Rooney is, I gather, one of the exciting young writers who is winning lots of prizes and acclaim these days. But this is the first of her work that I’ve read. And it convinces me that she’s something special. Every line in the story is perfect. So much so that it’s almost a travesty to try to say anything about it in an interpretive or critical vein. The best response to the story is simply to read it again, and again.

By way of a brief attempt to acknowledge its quality, however, let’s just say that it’s about Aidan, a young man who works on the front desk of a hotel in Ireland. He keeps running into Pauline, a woman who may or may not be his older brother’s girlfriend. She flirts with Aidan in a bold, almost taunting way, which he finds disconcerting. And yet, he does find her interesting. As they seem to be drawing closer to each other, he’s willing to go along with her just to try to clarify what’s happening.

The story ends up being a heart-rending depiction of a young man’s uncertainty, his vulnerability in the face of other people’s brash manipulations, his sincerity as opposed to the opportunism of others. But even to say that is to put the matter in terms that are too blunt. Ms Rooney conveys the story with the utmost delicacy and subtlety. I’m astounded that a woman writer can enter into the mind and soul of a young man so intimately and with such compassion.

 

Cut (Short Fiction) by Catherine Lacey, The New Yorker, April 22, 2019

It’s easy enough to say what this story’s about but not so easy to say what it means. Peggy, a middle-aged woman and a university prof, has a peculiar gynecological problem that’s causing her a lot of discomfort but nobody seems to be able to help her. Doctors are unavailable. An internet search turns up nothing but porn. Her husband offers a rather cavalier "don’t worry about it" response to her tentative mentioning of the problem. Meanwhile she has somewhat bizarre encounters with people in elevators (a precocious child in one case, a mad woman in another), a student who comes to her office to ramble on and on about his many anxieties and another student who cries over an assignment. Meanwhile, there’s an announcer in Peggy’s head who started out offering technical descriptions of sex when she’s having it with her husband but now the announcer is intruding with comments on other aspects of her life.

There’s a comical note of desperation underlying all this, one of those what-is-the-world-coming-to moods. But I think the key to the piece is the friendship Peggy has with Elena, an older woman who’s had two husbands die on her; she remembers good and bad things about each of them, but somehow the negatives seem to predominate. Her conversations with Peggy have a feeling of treading water, of marking time. Here’s how Elena sums up one of their discussions about life’s problems:

"But, then again, it’s always something." She sighed. "Bodies, men. It’s always something."

This, then, would be an example of a theme in fiction that, it seems to me, is becoming more prevalent lately: life doesn’t make much sense, you can’t impose a narrative structure on it. You just have to carry on, to keep ploughing through all the dreck. That’s life, there’s no escaping it. A message that may seem bleak but maybe it’s all we have.

 

Enlightenment Now (Psychology, Sociology) by Steven Pinker, 2018

A reader has to wonder how Steven Pinker can write so much. This is the eleventh book the Harvard psychology prof has produced on his own accord, not to mention the many he has edited. This one, in addition to its 450 pages of text, has another hundred pages of notes, references and index. Does the man have an army of researchers working for him? Well, maybe. The preface includes a page and a half of names of people who are thanked.

If there seems to be anything megalomaniacal about such an output, a thoughtful reading of the book proves that Professor Pinker’s elegant, witty prose is well worth reading. Just one example of the humour that creeps to the surface every now and then: "In Canada the top two national pastimes (after hockey) are complaining about their health care system and boasting about their health care system." For a touch of self-deprecation, there’s this comment about the personal computer revolution as experienced by "early adopters like me, who lost many an afternoon in the 1980s to installing a mouse or getting a dot matrix printer to do italics."

Professor Pinker’s point in this book is that the world right now is desperately in need of a reminder of the values of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism and progress. Those qualities are severely threatened in contemporary culture. Some pundits go so far as to claim that Enlightenment values are old-hat, pass. Not so, says Professor Pinker; we need them now more than ever to ensure the future of the human race.

In the past, Professor Pinker has been criticized for being too optimistic about the human condition. I seem to remember that was the response to his 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he tried to demonstrate that human life is getting better in most ways. Critics attacked him for giving too little weight to the many evils blighting our world today. In this book, Professor Pinker acknowledges that criticism, but he seems more determined than ever to prove his point about the upward trajectory of civilization. Mostly, he does that by means of graphs based on many studies of aspects of human life. One after another, the graphs consistently show that measures are improving in almost every area you can think of: civil rights, democracy, income, health, education, working conditions, leisure time, longevity and so on. There are of course anomalies and temporary glitches; the needle doesn’t always go up without occasional slippage. On the whole, though, these charts demonstrate that progress is consistently being made. While Professor Pinker says that many of the supposed dangers facing humanity are infinitesimal or fanciful, he acknowledges two very real ones: climate change and the threat of nuclear war. Both of these issues, he insists, pose definite threats to our well being and demand serious and prompt measures to deal with them.

To those who might doubt the professor’s conviction that humanity is forging ahead on a road of constant progress, he offers several caveats. One of them seems to be aimed particularly at readers who might be feeling the onset of old age: personal decline in our own faculties doesn’t mean that things are declining generally. On this point, Professor Pinker quotes the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams: "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." Professor Pinker also makes the crucial point that "it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come." Another big hurdle to seeing humanity’s progress is the "availability heuristic." This is what makes us think a thing is more prevalent than it is simply because we tend to hear about it with what strikes us as alarming frequency: for instance, the airplane disaster or the terrorist attack. We don’t hear about the flights that don’t crash and the days that go by without terrorist attacks. Professor Pinker also cautions against the frequent logical error of equating correlation with causation. Just because A and B happen together, that doesn’t mean that one causes the other.

If anybody is going to disprove Professor Pinker’s thesis, it’s not me. I find his charts (some 72 of them!) hard to argue with. If income per capita is going up and working hours are going down, then they are; that’s all there is to it. Occasionally, though, Professor Pinker seems to be so sold on his own point of view that he makes what sounds like a brash statement that doesn’t consider all the consequences. For instance: "It makes little sense to make tens of millions of poor Americans pay more for clothing to save tens of thousands of jobs in the apparel industry." I don’t think you have to be obsessed with social justice to think of some valid challenges to that statement. And I do notice that Professor Pinker sometimes falls into the kind of hypothetical statements that a reader tends to go along with, given the writer’s status and reputation. He’ll say that something is "likely" to happen or that "we must concede" such and such, sometimes without much concrete evidence to back up the claims. In one section that seemed subject to this critique, however, Professor Pinker was talking about how immersion in a cosmopolitan society causes people of different cultures to rub shoulders with each other, making them more tolerant of differences. A check on the footnote indicated that Professor Pinker was citing his own research as evidence on this point.

But I do have a few slight quibbles about the charts. They show that our supreme value – happiness – is increasing too. But I wonder if surveys can really measure something so intangible. Granted, the surveys do accurately – I presume – show how people respond when they are asked to rate their happiness in answer to questions that can be plotted on a graph. But do those answers truly reflect the respondents’ happiness or lack thereof? Or do the answers reflect simply what people say when asked these questions? Come to that, how can you speak of happiness in any measurable way? It’s not something fact-based in the way that income and working hours are.

As an example of the clarity of Professor Pinker’s thinking, I particularly like his response to people who reject reason, the nay-sayers who insist that life doesn’t make any sense, that it’s nothing but chaos and that there’s no point trying to come up with logical approaches to it. The fatal flaw in these objections, he says, is that they refute themselves: they are resorting to reason to argue against reason. If there were no such thing as reason, why would anybody listen to their reasoned arguments against it?

Religious people might have some difficulty accepting Professor Pinker’s thinking, in that he feels that the morality of any scientifically literate person requires a "clean break" from religious meanings and values. Religion, as he sees it, is antithetical to science because most of the dogmas of established religion are scientifically untenable. However, he does acknowledge that many religions can, by "soft-pedaling their legacy of supernatural beliefs and ecclesiastical authority" accomplish a great deal of good in a humanistic way.

Although Professor Pinker doesn’t make any secret of his leftist leanings, he seldom touches directly on politics. He does, however, cite various legal and systemic safeguards that make it unlikely – if not nearly impossible – for an improvident leader to ruin a democracy like that of the United States. On the subject of leadership he adds this cautionary note:

When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness."

Granted, solutions to long-standing problems do produce new problems. And Professor Pinker frequently reminds us that achieving improvement in a functioning democracy is a slow, gradual process, often involving a lot of compromises, rather than arriving at perfection. But a lot of Professor Pinker’s argument rests on the obvious evidence that humanity has done pretty well so far. Evolution has clearly groomed us to weed out the bad ideas from the good; otherwise we would not have survived this long. Nothing can sum up Professor Pinker’s case better than an 1830 quote from the British historian and politician, Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859). It may seem incongruous to go that far back for a quote when you’re talking about life today and its prospects for the future. But, in an uncanny way, it may be the quote’s age that gives it a kind of perennial, undying relevance:

We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason ... On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?"

 

Wanderer (Novel) by Sarah Lon, 2016; English translation by John Cullen, 2019

A young composer is holed up for the winter in an isolated house in a woodsy setting somewhere in France. There’s a knock at the door, he opens it, and there stands a younger man who was once his proteg. They haven’t seen each other for ten years. Back in the day, Lenny, the younger man, had wandered into the piano store where Hermin, the composer, was working. Having never had piano lessons, Lenny sat down at one of the pianos in the store and started improvising. Hermin, astounded at the display of Lenny’s innate talent, supported him, found teachers for him, and launched him on a brilliant career as a concert performer. But Lenny suddenly disappeared from Hermin’s life.

So what happened? And why is he back now?

Those two questions fuel this short novel (a little less than 55,000 words) by Sarah Lon. Reunited, the two men hike through the woods, they brave snowstorms, they eat, they sit by the fire, they listen to music, they talk about it. Lenny doesn’t say much, though. He coughs a lot, he’s thin, and he doesn’t appear to be very healthy. He tells Hermin that he has given up playing the piano. Hermin’s at great pains to get much in the way of information or explanation from his taciturn friend. Still, something binds them together in this eremetical sojourn. In a clever literary flourish, contemporary scenes between the two men, told in third-person narrative, are frequently interrupted by Hermin’s thoughts, in first person and in italics, telling us about his experiences with Lenny ten years ago.

For lack of forward momentum, for an almost total absence of plot and explanation, this tale might exasperate some readers. But I found it compelling. There’s an underlying sense of drama, of tension, that kept me wondering what the heck is going on here? Was the relationship between the two men erotic? Why was Hermin putting up with such a stubborn visitor? And what was keeping Lenny hanging around?

There’s beautiful writing in this book. For example:

Above all else, he loved discovering, around one or another random bend in the path, frozen ponds that continued to reflect, imperfectly, the shabby barriers of wood or wire that bordered them, and he loved to approach such a pond and admire, captured in its ice, bubbles of air more sparkling than a set of diamonds.

But I find some examples of over-writing as well:

All language was abolished, ceding its place to raw emotion, to that unthinking, unfettered presence, and it seemed to them that they themselves were dissolved in the waterfall, that they too became the torrential water, the rapids, the spray bounding off the rocks.

And:

The boy’s hands barely moved on the keyboard – even his left hand, which had to search out the bass in the piano’s lowest register, could do nothing to break the almost hieratic sensation of immobility – pain seemed to withdraw, and time to hold its breath.

I think the latter passage demonstrates the difficulty of trying, in prose, to convey the effect of music. (For me, this is the problem with books like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.) Maybe the reaching for effect in Wanderer is also partly due to the youth and inexperience of the author. The cover blurb explains that Sarah Lon was in her early twenties when the book was published in France. The blurb also informs us that she has studied literature and musicology. That could be why this work feels a bit like a literary riff on music, particularly that of Franz Schubert, especially his song cycle Die Winterreise, with its depiction of the forsaken lover wandering the bleak landscape. The many references to it are meant to add atmosphere to the story in an evocative, poetic way but they might seem tiresome to a reader who knows nothing about the oeuvre and has no interest in it. I do like that sort of music but I found the frequent echoes of it here somewhat intrusive. Some of the musical technicalities that come up for discussion are a bit showy, almost to the point of being pedantic. The quotation from another famous Schubert song at the end of the book strikes a note that’s far too predictable.

There’s no denying that Wanderer treads dangerously close to the old clich – dating at least from the era of Agatha Christie – of an intrigue taking place in a location cut off from the rest of the world by snow. And yet, the fact that it isn’t Agatha Christie, that it isn’t a thriller in the obvious sense, is what gives the book its quiet strength. It kept me reading right to the end to find out what was going on with Lenny and Hermin. And the explanation, when it comes, contains profound truth about being human. No matter what quibbles you might have about a novel, surely that’s enough to justify its existence.

 

Run Away (Mystery/Thriller) by Harlan Coben, 2019

Harlan Coben’s latest opens with Simon, a Wall Street financial advisor, sitting on a bench in Central Park, hoping to see his daughter Paige do her busking with guitar and song. Paige, a drug addict, disappeared from the family home some months ago but someone has told Simon that he may find her here. He does, but when he tries to persuade her to come home, a grungy guy who appears to be her lover and drug dealer intervenes. A fight between him and Simon ensues. Some people catch it on their phones. The video goes viral, with headlines touting the spectacle of a Wall Street executive attacking a homeless person.

That makes considerable trouble for Simon. Not least of which – the drug dealer turns up murdered shortly afterwards, so you can guess who the prime suspect is. The story that follows contains all the cleverness, violence, action, suspense and excellent writing – and even some of the heartache – that you expect from Mr. Coben. The final pages have several surprises tumbling out one on top of another, leading to a macabre ending that has a touch of Greek tragedy.

Mr. Coben shows in this book that he has a particular gift for creating fascinating women in supporting roles. One of them is Simon’s lawyer, a feisty character in her seventies, and the other is a former FBI agent who’s now working as a private investigator on a case that connects with Simon’s search for his daughter.

As usual, Mr. Coben supplies us with some sly social commentary, such as Simon’s observation on the supposed fondess for cooking among men: "When, he wondered, did cooking become the new poser claim, replacing all the amateur sommeliers?" And there are the taxi drivers who are always talking quietly into an earpiece in a language Simon can’t understand, leading him to wonder about "the ridiculously strong family bonds of such people." The author can’t resist venting a bit of his own loathing for the fashion of the "man bun" as worn by one character.

Among the book’s many other merits, there’s a touching moment when Simon watches his other two children – a boy and a girl– commiserating with each other. A subtle comment on parenting comes when Simon notes that his "Dad voice" is falling way short of the mark in some interaction with his kids. Mr. Coben has come up with what strikes me as a new way of expressing a character’s stupidity. Instead of hearing that the person in question is not the sharpest knife in the drawer or the brightest bulb on the tree, we hear that "his driveway doesn’t quite reach the road." A literary device that Mr. Coben employs effectively is some overlapping in time sequences. Often, we get an incident from the point of view of some characters and then we drop back a few moments to see how the event was developing for other characters.

I have one slight problem with the plotting of the book in that the person who saves the day in the climactic scene, a person who has had a minor role up to that point, happens to appear on the scene with sudden yet impeccable timing that seems somewhat improbable. My only other reservation about the book is that two of the characters take us into the world of a bizarre cult. For me, that makes for off-putting reading. However, one of the cult members does make the interesting point that the so-called weirdness of the cult, if you put aside your prejudices, isn’t actually much weirder than the tenets of most mainstream religions.

 

Bring Me Back (Mystery) by B.A. Paris, 2018

Usually, I ignore a book’s cover blurbs. In this case, however, one brief comment was unavoidable: "I, for one, am loving it." That, coming from Lee Child (author of the outstanding Jack Reacher series), was enough to make me think that this book would be worth a try.

The premise is ingenious.

Twelve years ago, Finn, a young denizen of the financial world of London, was holidaying in France with his girlfriend, Layla, a Scottish lass. On the drive back to England, they stopped at a picnic spot and when Finn came out of the restroom, Layla had disappeared. There’s been no sign of her since then, so she has been officially declared dead. Finn is now living with her older sister, Ellen, and plans to marry her. But....mysterious happenings are beginning to hint that Layla may still be alive and may actually be tracking Finn and Ellen’s romance.

Flipping back and forth in time, between Finn’s past with Layla and his present with Ellen, the book makes for an engrossing read in terms of curiosity and suspense. Part way through, the narration takes a turn that reveals that things are not what we thought they were. In this respect, the book is a lot like a hugely popular one that appeared in recent years and that started a trend in this kind of mystery. (To say any more would be to give away too much.) The complications send Finn’s head spinning for many pages of frantic rumination. The ending is a highly convoluted construction that dazzles in its brilliance – if you like the sort of thing that pleases in the way of a mental game but may not have much to do with plausibility.

Kudos, then, to B.A. Paris for her cleverness. I can’t say so much for the quality of the writing. This is one of those books that relies heavily on autonomic responses to up the emotional quotient. We’re constantly getting hearts hammering, bodies reeling from jolts of shock, chests tightening, breath constricted, dizziness, vision blurred. One passage, where Finn opens a chest found in an attic, is almost a parody of this kind of thing: "Unease prickles my spine and I find myself taking a step back, away from the chest. My heartbeat slows to a dull thud, a response to the horror that is spreading through my body." I don’t understand why writers think that this is the way to engage a reader in a situation. To me, it feels as though I’m being subjected to some cloying tactic like the kind of scary sound effects you get in a horror movie. What makes the tactic worse, in this case, is that the over-heated prose is bringing the chapter to a cliff-hanger of an ending, but when we turn the page we find that the sight that brought on all this physical distress wasn’t so terrible.

Other aspects of the prose confirm the impression that you’re in the hands of a less than top-notch writer. For instance, the use of inappropriate verbs instead of the simple "to say." As in: "‘I’ll have two coffees then,’ I grin." How do you ‘grin’ words? And I noted five instances where Ellen has to ask Finn questions like: "Are you all right?" and "Is everything all right?" To repeat such a lame line of dialogue so often makes the speaker seem vapid. It doesn’t create a strong impression of the writer, either. Do editors not care about this sort of thing? Do they think readers don’t care? It would be sad to think that publishers had such a low opinion of the people who buy their books.

 

Holy Ghost (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2018

Virgil Flowers, whom we know from other John Sandford books as an associate of Lucas Davenport, is called to a tiny town where the Blessed Virgin has been making appearances at a Catholic church. A phenomenon like that might not call for Virgil’s attention except that people gathering outside the church for the apparitions are being shot by a sniper. It doesn’t take long to unravel the "mystery" of the miraculous appearances, but solving the mystery around the shootings of the bystanders takes the reader into quite a lot of complicated plotting.

As usual in a Sandford novel, we’re following the bad people some of the time, but not as much as in other Sandford books. There are a couple of pages of sentimental wrapping up that we don’t need at the end of the book. (Perhaps that’s about the author’s meeting a publisher’s requirement of a certain number of pages?) It’s an enjoyable read but it isn’t quite as gripping as most of Sandford’s mysteries. Virgil isn’t as colourful as previously. Is that because he’s entering a new phase of his life, as exemplified by the fact that he and his girlfriend, Frankie, are now expecting a baby? The writing is a bit slack at times, with sentences like, "he did this and then he went and talked to..." [not an exact quote]. There’s a lot of gun talk, analysis of the kinds of firearms and bullets used, detail that a reader like me doesn’t get much out of.

One of the best touches is the relationship between Shrake and Jenkins, two guys who often appear as henchmen in Sandford books. When Shrake is badly injured, Jenkins tells him: "Of course, if we don’t get you to a hospital, you’re going to bleed to death, and we’ll have all that fuckin’ paper work. It’s like you to do that to me, you inconsiderate fuck."

 

All Quiet on the Western Front (Novel) by Erich Maria Remarque, 1928; English translation from the German by A.W. Wheen, 1929

People keep saying that this novel about the First World War from a German soldier’s point of view is a masterpiece, possibly the best war novel ever. Somehow, you never got around to it .... until some friends recently happened to express how excited they were about it.

It truly is an outstanding book.

The thing about it that strikes me most forcibly is that it’s so fresh and current. It sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Although it’s ninety years old, there’s none of the flavour of a bygone era about it. The diction is colloquial and simple. (Thanks, in no small part, to the miracle of A.W. Wheen’s translation.) Moreover, it talks about things that I didn’t think books could mention in the 1920s. In the first few pages, for instance, the narrator is talking about how much he and the other soldiers enjoy chatting with each other while they’re sitting on the latrines that they’ve improvised for themselves in an open field. And then there’s reference to masturbation among prisoners of war. When a wife comes to visit her soldier husband in hospital, the other patients stage some diversions to keep the authorites away from the ward so that the wife can crawl into the husband’s bed for sex. One of the soldiers even takes on the duty of entertaining the woman’s baby for as long as the love-making takes.

It would be hard to single out the most moving scenes or the most impressive incidents in the book, but some of the contenders, from my point of view would be:

  • Paul, the narrator, sits by the bed of a comrade who is dying while the other guys are scheming about who’s going to get his boots;
  • Paul’s practical help for the new recruit who is so frightened by a bombardment that he has soiled his pants;
  • Paul arrives home on leave and is stopped by an onslaught of his tears as he steps into the house and sees his sister;
  • the soldiers’ revenge on an officer who was officious and mean in the training period, followed by their discovery, in battle, of their common humanity with him;
  • Paul and his comrades establish a sort of redoubt in a bombed village, setting themselves up with whatever elaborate furnishings they can scavenge, then playing at ordering each other around as if they were aristocrats ensconced in luxury;
  • Paul sharing his cigarettes with starving Russian prisoners;
  • Paul’s night trapped in a trench with an enemy soldier whom he has stabbed and who is dying.

In that scene with the dying enemy, Paul gives full reign to his imagination, picturing the other guy’s home life, his family and the fullness of the life he’s losing. These thoughts connect to discussions among the soldiers about the futility of war, the meaninglessness of the term "enemy," and the fact that neither force has incontrovertible right on its side. In this respect, the book was lucky in the timing of its publication, as pointed out in an excellent essay (in this 2013 Random House edition) by G.J. Meyer, an acclaimed historian. Professor Meyer notes that by 1928, the public had begun to grow skeptical about all the chauvinist brou-ha-ha that fuelled the war fever of 1914-1918. By the time of the book’s publication, people were beginning to see how futile the war had been and that neither side had an absolute claim to moral righteousness. Thus, Erich Maria Remarque’s view of the war from a humane, non partisan point of view, could be accepted in a way that it wouldn’t have been closer to the end of the war.

Among many passages of beautiful writing, one of the most striking would be this one, where Paul has been trapped in a trench, unable to escape, and he finally hears his comrades on their way to rescue him:

These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.

If there could be said to be any flaw in the book, it might be that it doesn’t give an overview or a political take on what was happening. It’s the war strictly from a grunt’s point of view: the mud, the noise, the gas, the hunger, the slaughter. All that is conveyed with shocking immediacy. You don’t get much sense of where these soldiers are headed or what their struggles are meant to achieve. It’s pretty much a blind, meaningless hell – except for those small moments of human decency that the soldiers can find in the midst of the nightmare. But it must be admitted that that weakness, if it is one, is the strength of the book. The reader experiences the horror pretty much as the soldiers did.

On one level, the message that the author wants to get across is that this cataclysm ruined a generation of men – not just in depriving so many of their lives at such a young age. The survivors fared nearly as badly. Their illusions were shattered, their dreams and their hopes destroyed. He wants us to know that they might never be able to return to life with the same joy and pleasure and faith that they had once known. Point taken. But it’s only in these passages that I find the writing slightly over-done, reaching towards the grandiloquent. To me, the book is more sincere, more authentic when it concentrates on the the daily grind of the soldiers’ lives.

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