Dilettante's Diary

Aug 2/19

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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MOVIES
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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: Late Night (Movie); Early August (Play); She Said He Said, Uncle Jim Called, Son of Friedman and Back Then (Short Stories); Robin (Biography); The Witch Elm (Mystery); At the Strangers' Gate (Memoir); Deep Freeze (Mystery); Hillbilly Elegy (Memoir); Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Essays)

Late Night (Movie) written by Mindy Kaling; directed by Nisha Ganatra; starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Denis O’Hare, Max Casella, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early

One thing you can say about Late Night: it departs, in one significant way, from the usual Hollywood fare. Not only does it feature a middle-aged woman in the starring role, but she’s a woman who is not hiding her age; she’s acknowledging it (mid-fifties) and coming to grips with the consequences.

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a late night talk show host with a certain on-screen dazzle but an off-screen personality that’s caustic, abusive and narcissistic. Problem is, her show is becoming dated and irrelevant, not least because her writing staff has always consisted of privileged white males. In order to give the production a bit of a cosmetic uplift, she’s forced to hire a female writer. This turns out to be Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a brown-skinned woman whose career experience so far has been in a chemical factory. She has performed a little in comedy clubs but has had no actual tv-writing experience.

Does Molly prove to be a mere token addition to the team? Does she give Katherine’s show the shot in the arm that it needs? Does she save the day? Well, this is a Hollywood movie, after all. And yes, it does score all feminist points it’s aiming for.

It’s contrived, cloying, corny, sentimental, silly, exaggerated, plotty – and delightful. I enjoyed it very much.

What makes it all come off like fireworks is Emma Thompson. She tosses off Katherine Newbury’s incisive retorts with a cool disdain that knocks you back a few paces with equal parts of shock and admiration. In one of the opening scenes, she has just fired one of her male writers, whereupon he tells her that he’s always felt that the show sucks. Her response: "That would sound much better coming from someone who had a job." [not an exact quote] Previously, she never bothered to meet with her writers but now that she has to confer with them on the show’s sagging ratings, she doesn’t bother to learn their names, merely assigns them numbers according to their positions around the table. Eventually, she does inquire about one writer whom she happens to remember. There’s silence around the table. Then someone tells her: that writer died two years ago. Later, when the climate around the office is starting to change, one of the writers responds to the fact that she actually has called him by his name: "I almost got an erection."

Katherine shows herself to be something more like a human being at home with her husband (John Lithgow), an older man who has Parkinson’s. And she does say, at one point, perhaps by way of an apology for her bitchiness, that when a person is unhappy with herself, she tries to make other people feel the same way. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, a personal scandal emerges that helps to make her seem yet more vulnerable. It struck me that this issue arrived out of left field, without the slightest warning, but that doesn’t matter much in a movie that constantly throws in additional ingredients to keep the pot boiling.

While Ms. Thompson’s version of Katherine is rivetting and compelling, I wasn’t as sure how to take the character of Molly Patel, as played by Mindy Kaling. Perhaps that’s because the character is not a type that appears much – if ever – in movies. She’s sweet and pleasant, yet intelligent and candid, not afraid to tell truth to power, and yet there’s something implausibly naive about her. (What woman in this era would show up unexpected at a bachelor’s pad one night with booze and cupcakes?) I kept wondering: shouldn’t there be something more edgy about this woman? And I wasn’t entirely convinced that she brought about the changes in the tv show that she was credited with. But I’m not going to go heavy with criticism of Ms. Kaling because I’m in awe of the fact that she got this movie – her own script – made. That, in itself, is a formidable example of the fact that sometimes people can surprise you with what they accomplish.

A further attraction of the movie that might not mean much to a lot of moviegoers is that it provides special entertainment for those of us who are fascinated by the world of show business and have a particular curiosity about how things go behind the scenes. Admittedly, that world is hyped up and satirized here, but there’s lots of scheming and conniving to enjoy. The real tv world must be something like that.

 

Early August (Play) by Kate Lynch, directed by Mairi Babb; starring Rachel Delduca, Madeleine Donohue, Monique Lund, Thom Nyhuus, Caroline Toal; June 12-29, Lighthouse Theatre, Port Dover, Ont; July 3-14, Showboat Theatre, Port Colborne, Ont.

For obvious reasons, I can’t pretend to offer an objective review of this production, but I want to note that it made for a pleasant summer afternoon. The gist of the piece is that it’s a backstage look at a troupe of actors who are performing in a summer theatre. The actors include two neurotic young women who are anxious about their careers (Rachel Delcuca and Caroline Toal), an older woman who’s been around the block a few times (Monique Lund) and a younger man (Thom Nyhuus) who seems to be trying to get it on with all three women. And then there’s the wily stage manager (Madeleine Donohue) who solves everybody’s personal problems so that the show can go on. It’s an amusing take on many of the foibles of the acting community.

One thing about the play – originally produced at the Blyth Festival – puzzled me: what on earth was the supposed production that these people were acting in? It seemed to have many acts and several intermissions and a wild variety of costume changes spanning several cultures and eras: Amish dresses, business suits, Mountie uniforms. I’m told that this was intended as a joke about typical Canadian summer theatre. The play these actors were performing was meant to be a pastiche of all the clichs we get in regional theatre festivals. Okay, fine. But I didn’t get that message. Beats me how any production could put it across. Maybe the actors in the green room could have hinted at their low opinion of the play going on out there? But the script called for them to take it seriously, as being important to their careers. So maybe this could be one of those cases of a playwright’s idea that’s hard to convey to an audience.

[Note: Since we have a lot of reading to catch up on here, I’ll present the works in reverse chronological order, starting with the ones most recently published]

She Said He Said (Short Fiction) by Hanif Kureishi, The New Yorker, July 22, 2019

In a drunken state, a man makes a suggestive remark to a friend’s wife. She laughs it off but he repeats his proposition when he’s sober. That launches a cataclysm of response among friends and associates. Everybody has different ideas about what happened or what should have happened. This leads to confusion about the state of society, customs and expectations. An existential bewilderment, you might say. A short piece with great impact.

 

Uncle Jim Called (Short Fiction) by David Rabe, The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2019

A man gets a phone call from two uncles, which is something of a surprise – because, as far as he knows, they’re dead. Then they start showing up on tv programs. The weirdness gets to the point that he catches sight of them on the streets. Ordinarily, writing that has a surrealistic or sci-fi aspect to it doesn’t appeal to me. I found this piece, though, to have profound implications. You could take a sort of metaphysical message from the story – something about whether what we experience as life is real or unreal – but I found it to be a moving reflection on how the loss of loved ones and the passage of time leave us with so many unanswered questions, so many misunderstandings, so much "irreducible longing" as the author puts it.

 

Son of Friedman (Short Fiction) by Emma Cline, The New Yorker, July 1, 2019

George is meeting his old friend, William, for supper. Then they’re going to see the first showing of a movie that George’s son, Benji, has made. George and William have been involved in the movie business but it’s obvious that William has been more successful; he’s the famous one. William is also Benji’s godfather. The two older men have their dinner, see the movie, then George ends up at a party among Benji’s friends and supporters. Many threads of melancholy are running through the piece: the fact that William probably won’t take on the new film project that George is pitching, the fact that William was probably closer to Benji than George was, the fact that George feels so much like yesterday’s man in the presence of Benji’s friends, especially his pretty girlfriend, the fact that celebrity is fleeting, that life doesn’t make much sense, that things don’t work out the way we hope they will. One of the most touching moments comes when George is thinking about the crappy action movies Benji liked as a kid: "Who wouldn’t want to imagine that life might have a shape, a formula? That the years didn’t just pass through you. Dark night of the soul, all is lost – then the moment of victory, the reversal, all is well, reunion, tears. The hero prevails." Maybe this thought best catches the complexity of George’s feelings: "So many opportunities, here on Earth, for embarrassment."

 

Back Then (Short Fiction) by Mary Grimm, The New Yorker, June 24, 2019

It’s not often that you get New Yorker fiction which is pure reminiscence, with no hint of plot, no attempt to make a point (except perhaps in the last few lines). Mary Grimm’s evocation of childhood summers will plunge you deep into your own memories of that special time. In the first few lines, when she’s talking about sitting on the pier watching for falling stars, she caught me with this: "The water sucked and slopped against the rocks." The piece carries on with one delicious detail after the other.

 

Robin (Biography) by Dave Itzkoff, 2018

Here at Dilettante’s Diary we don’t drool over every showbiz biography that comes along. What people in "the biz" can do in their art matters, not their private lives. Robin Williams is an exception. His comedy seemed so new and fresh at a time when we were young and forming our own impressions of the world that he helped to define our culture. That makes it worth knowing all about him. And the tragic ending to his story makes us all the more concerned about the trajectory of his life; there’s always the hope that learning about what went wrong might help the rest of us to live better.

Robin’s story isn’t the typical rags to riches tale we hear from many big stars. Far from being marginal, his childhood was a relatively privileged WASP upbringing. His dad was an executive in the automobile industry and the family lived in posh houses. But they moved often and this, for an only child, could make for loneliness. He spent a lot of time in the upper chambers of his family’s mansions, peopling them with products of his imagination; the walls rang with the witty dialogues he spun for his creations. Later, his dear friend, Christopher Reeve could see that trend in Robin’s work. "The child in Robin is so open and approachable and immediately apparent," Mr. Reeve said. "He’s very aware, real grown up, but still in touch with the child in him."

That talent emerged into the world at large when Robin signed up for acting classes, then theatre school. (He’d tried for a while to be the diligent student of political science his father wanted him to be.) After he’d done a couple of years at the Julliard, the faculty decided to let him be honourably dismissed, so to speak. It was never quite clear whether they felt that he could learn from what they tried to teach him or whether he was such an instinctive performer that he had to be left to do his own thing. Another question about Robin constantly came up – both early and late in his career: were his hilarious routines as spontaneous as they seemed or were they carefully prepared? The consensus seems to be that they were mostly the latter, with a touch of the former. Robin’s co-star in The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges makes a perceptive comment on the two aspects of Robin’s craft: "As I got to know him, I saw that this zany quality, the comic end, was really just a tool he had in his kit bag. He was a trained actor who approached the part with that seriousness, and of course he had that wonderful comedic brain in him that he used at will. But he knew what was up." But writing was never part of his process. "To be funny in print is a real hard thing for me to do," Robin said. "I can do it in performing, because it’s straight out, ka-boom. But when I sit down at the typewriter, I feel like an autistic child."

Performing in comedy clubs in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, he was gradually making a name for himself. (It was news to me, as someone who’d never witnessed this aspect of his career, that his stand-up shtick was so scatological.) After a bit of not very impressive tv and film work, came an audition for a role in Happy Days in 1978. I found it fascinating to learn about the origins of the character that was to make Robin’s name. Gary Marshall, the series creator of Happy Days, felt the show needed something to spike the sagging ratings. His nine-year-old son, Scott, an avid fan of Star Wars (which had come out the previous summer) suggested: how about an alien from outer space? The idea was adopted for a dream sequence of Fonzie’s in an episode called "My Favorite Orkan." Robin auditioned and got the part.

It was so successful, that the spin-off Mork and Mindy soon followed. When Robin’s agent phoned to tell him that he’d be paid $1,500 per episode, Robin screamed "Wow!" When his excitement died down, the agent came clean: "Schmuck, it’s $15,000 a week – I was just teasing you." Overnight, Robin became a celebrity: cover of Time and all that. Although the show didn’t last all that long (1978-1982), it became an unforgettable phenomenon. Pam Dawber, who played Mindy, said quite generously that she always knew it was Robin’s show; she never even thought of trying to compete with him. "It was the greatest acting class I ever had," she said. "Because, lucky for me, Robin was such a nice person. He had such a gigantic heart. And I really loved Robin, and Robin really loved me."

Following the high that came from that success, however, Robin struggled to show that he could be something more than a one-show sitcom wonder. "A god at twenty-seven, a washout at twenty-eight," he said, in the spring of 1980. His first few attempts at movies – Popeye, Moscow on the Hudson, The World According to Garp – didn’t do much for his reputation. But then came Good Morning, Viet Nam. The story (based on real life) of a DJ at a military base proved to be the perfect vehicle for Robin’s talents, giving plenty of opportunity for his comic riffing on whatever subjects came into his mind while still adhering to a script that called for some serious acting.

From that point on, there was never any question about Robin’s being a movie star of the first order. Some of his movies worked better, some didn’t. From time to time, critics would complain that he was just a clown, not a real actor, but those same critics might turn around and laud his marvellous performance in his next movie. One of the best things about this book is that it gives an excellent sense of the vicissitudes of moving making. The highs and lows, the ups and downs, of the industry are all here. It’s such an iffy business that it seems almost a miracle that anything ever does get produced.

Through all of this, Robin was sleeping around and doing drugs to an almost legendary degree. He had become one of those people whose stardom and fortune could get him almost anything he wanted, so he took it. A turning point came for him on the death of his friend, John Belushi, from a drug overdose. Robin had been with him the night before he died. The shock of that prompted Robin to quit drugs and alcohol. Looking back at his indulgences in that department, he said: "Cocaine is one of the most selfish drugs in the world. The world is as big as your nostril."

Up to a point, his first wife, Valeri Velardi, had been trying to be understanding and forgiving about his errant behaviour. She felt his wildness, his playing around, was a kind of venting that he needed to cope with the stress of such a high profile and demanding career. However, the stresses eventually proved too much for the marriage and they divorced in 1988 after 10 years of marriage, their son, Zak, being five years old. Then came a second marriage,this time to Marsha Garces, with whom Robin fathered Zelda and Cody. In 2011, Robin married Susan Schneider.With a new wife and two ex wives to support, he was making crappy movies just because he needed the money. He said that people would come up to him and say "If you ever make another movie like that, I’ll hurt you." His reaction: "This is interesting feedback. Does it make me deny the validity of what I’ve done? No. Does it make me want to look for other things? Yes."

Throughout his life, he was, somewhat at odds with his privileged upbringing, a left-leaning, liberal. He paid for the private schooling of his employees’ kids. He acknowledged some element of spirituality in his life: "Do I attend church every Sunday? No. Do I try and lead a fairly Christian life? Yes. Have I ever had any inappropriate behavior? Yes, years ago." As for his departures from conventional rectitude, Lillian Ross said this in the New Yorker: "Robin was a genius, and genius doesn’t produce normal men next door who are good family men and look after their wives and children. Genius requires its own way of looking at and living in the world, and it isn’t always compatible with conventional ways of living."

But Robin apparently didn’t think of himself as exceptional. At a lunch with his half brother, McLaurin Smith-Williams, he said: "You know, that waiter, he has as much talent as I do. I just had a bunch of breaks." There’s no telling what that waiter’s gifts might have been, but Robin’s talent for one-liners can’t be denied. Among my favourites is the one where his fake boobs caught fire when he was leaning over the stove in his role as Mrs. Doubtfire: "My first day as a woman and I’m getting hot flashes." And, after cardiac surgery, he explained why he was tempted to chose a porcine replacement valve: "Because you’re already innoculated for swine flu. And one of the side effects is you can find truffles, which is kind of cool."

During a 2004 production of The Big White, it became obvious that Robin had started drinking after twenty years of sobriety. His drunken episodes became so frequent and so public that his family intervened, pointing out that he needed help they couldn’t provide. In the summer of 2006, he began a stay at a rehab centre in Oregon, where he attended meetings with other recovering alcoholics and learned to follow the tenets of the twelve-step program. In 2007, with a year’s sobriety to his account, he said that he fully accepted that his addiction would remain a lifelong issue. "It’s always there. You’ll always have a little bit of fear. You just have to keep at it."

Some months before his suicide in 2014, friends and family were noticing that he seemed disoriented, confused. He was on anti-depressants and engaged in psychotherapy. One of the saddest lines in the book comes when a friend was urging him to try some stand-up at a comedy club in the hopes that that would raise his spirits. Robin cried and said: "I don’t know how anymore. I don’t know how to be funny." A diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease helped clarify the situation but Robin didn’t seem to put any hope in successful treatment or recovery. After his death, an autopsy indicated that he may have been suffering from Diffuse Lewy Body dementia, a condition that frequently causes Parkinsonian motor symptoms, depression and hallucination. It’s not surprising, then, that friends who mourned his death felt that it was not the real Robin who had killed himself. The loving, kind, funny, generous soul they’d known had departed this world long before his body did.

However, the question still looms: is it possible that anybody who experienced so much fame, so much glory, so much stress, so much financial pressure – that any such person could retain a sane and well-balanced emotional life right to the end? Anybody who could survive all that intact would have to be someone a lot more stable than you and I. And Robin was not exactly a rock when it came to emotions. Like so many creative people, he was sensitive, easily hurt and desperately in need of approval. It’s no wonder that he was severely damaged by all the hoop-la. I think the danger of being swamped by all that comes to light in this biography’s treatment of Robin’s winning of the 1997 Academy Award for best supporting actor in Good Will Hunting. Here, the biographer, it seems to me, loses touch with grounded reality. The event is described as if it were the Apotheosis of Robin. Does winning an Oscar really mean that much? Isn’t this sort of competitive rating in the arts delusional? Shouldn’t the writer have pulled back a bit, not got carried away himself by all the fuss?

For the most part, Mr. Itzkoff’s writing is clear and efficient. I am slightly bothered, though, by certain "writer-ish" touches: instances where the writer tries too hard to make a smooth transition from one subject to another. This amounts to constructing a bridge between facts when there is really no connection between them. To me, it sounds too much like an English student trying to impress a composition teacher. A few examples:

- While Robin savoured these appreciations [fan mail], he would soon be celebrating another joyous milestone. [the birth of his daughter Zelda Rae]

- But perhaps the most significant part Robin would play was one that took place beyond the view of any cameras. [his support for his friend, Christopher Reeves who was paralyzed by a horse riding accident]

- What might have been a summer of renewal and reflection was overcast with sadness when Robin’s half brother Todd died of heart failure on August 14.

And there are some awkward passages where the author tries to cram too much information into one sentence:

- Just as he did in this short bio, in which he tried to strike a balance between a proper amount of modesty and pride in his accomplishments, Robin strained in his Off the Wall performances to temper vanity with restraint – to juggle the communal spirit of improv theater and the solitary impulse of stand-up comedy.

- A claustrophobic performance space of about ten feet by one hundred feet, which at its official seating capacity of seventy-eight was frequently packed with twice or three times as many people, the wood-panelled venue took its name from a sign that its original owner had found in a small community in the Santa Cruz Mountains, called Holy City, where its wildlife preserve was going out of business.

But none of this is to disparage Mr. Itzkoff’s great achievement in offering us such a thorough and generous biography of an important figure in our culture. (The voluminous footnotes are a further source of information and clarification.) In fact, some of the most touching material comes in Mr. Itzkoff’s reminiscence of his own experience with Robin. The author had been spending time with Robin in the process of writing about him for the New York Times. When on tour, Robin would spend forty-five minutes alone in his dressing room before a performance. No one was allowed to interrupt him during this time. To Mr. Itzkoff, that spoke of something especially private and secret about Robin. Nearly everyone who was close to him had the same impression, he says. "They believed there was some part of himself that he withheld from them; everyone got a piece of him and a fortunate few got quite a lot of him, but no one got all of him."

Even Mr. Itzkoff got a piece of Robin that he wasn’t expecting. When the two men were discussing their shared interest in comics and collectibles, Robin promised to take Mr. Itzkoff to a favourite comic store the next time he was in New York. "I thought it was the kind of thing a celebrity says during an interview to butter you up," says Mr. Itzkoff. But on a Saturday morning in the fall of 2009, the call came from Robin, inviting Mr. Itzkoff to go shopping for comic books with him.

He wasn’t trying to influence how I wrote about him and he didn’t expect anything more in return from me. If he could give you some of his time to help you enjoy your day or feel better about yourself, he would, and he gave pieces of himself to many people.

 

The Witch Elm (Mystery) by Tana French, 2018

By the time this book arrived from the library, I couldn’t remember why I’d ordered it. I must have seen a favourable mention of it somewhere. It turns out to be a mystery – of sorts.

A young man, Toby, who does PR for a small art gallery in Dublin, is looking back and telling us about how his life changed when he was robbed and severely beaten by burglars who invaded his apartment. Police interviewed him and an investigation was launched, but nothing much came of it in the short term. Following a hospital stay, Toby remained seriously disoriented and depressed. Since he wasn’t able to return to his job, a cousin persuaded him to move in with an uncle who was living in the ancestral home and who had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. While Toby’s there, evidence comes to light of a murder committed on the premises some years back. The ensuing investigation becomes the main subject of the book.

For a while, I wondered what was the point of starting out with the burglary and the assault on Toby. Was it just a way of getting him to stay with the uncle? However, Toby’s condition as a result of the beating does have plot consequences, in that his brain injury makes it difficult, sometimes, to deal appropriately with what is going on. More crucially, it also means that his memory of the past is seriously compromised.

Early on in the book, you discover that you’re in the hands of a formidable writer. Just on page two, you’re stunned by Toby’s reference to that terrible night of the attack as "the slipped-in sheet of trick glass that tints everything on one side in its own murky colors and leaves everything on the other luminous, achingly close, untouched and untouchable." When Toby’s trying to remember the attack, he says that all he has are "isolated moments, framed like slides and with the same lucent, untethered quality, nothing in between them but blackness and the harsh click of one rotating away as the next drops into place." The description of Toby’s pain and discomfort in hospital is so vivid that it brings on pangs of empathy. When his pals Sean and Dec finally come to visit him in hospital, his joshing with them is so vivid and real that it makes you wish they had bigger roles in the book.

Among further examples of brilliant writing, Toby offers this striking impression of a gentlemanly but persistent detective: "He was like a raptor, not cruel, not good or evil, only and utterly what he was. The purity of it, unbreakable, was beyond anything I could imagine." After nearly five hundred pages and barrels of trauma, the image of the trick glass returns in a way that tugs at your heart: "Somewhere on the other side of that sheet of trick glass, my own life was waiting for me, warm and bright as summer, beckoning."

Toby strikes me as an unusual narrator, in that he knows he’s seen as a lucky person who gets all the breaks. He tells us that he’s good looking and that "people tended to like me, and that did tend to get me out of trouble..." His charmed status, of course, makes his current plight all the more intriguing. At times, I did feel, however, that the author exaggerates Tony’s reactions to the attack. His dizziness and his disorientation seem to drag on too long. He wolfs down Xanax as if it were a staple food. I was tempted to side with his girlfriend’s roommate who intimates that Toby should snap out of it. However, I’ve never been attacked the way he was, so what do I know? In any case, Toby’s ongoing symptoms do serve an important plot point.

Odd aspects of Toby’s character include the fact that he never seems to see children as anything but annoying brats. This negativity carries throughout the book. I don’t understand why. Another quirk: he frequently addresses his girlfriend as "baby." I find it hard to believe that any relatively sophisticated man in Western culture would do that. Maybe it sounds okay with an Irish brogue? Another thing that didn’t ring quite true for me was that Toby so often has an impulse to punch other men, but the impulse does turn out to have consequences near the end of the book.

In many ways, this novel reminds me of outstanding works by certain British authors. To begin with there’s the obvious debt to the novels that Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine: young people – in this case, Toby and two cousins around his age – struggling to find out the truth about something awful that happened when they were younger. And the way these upper-middle class people relate – the members of Toby’s extended family – feels a lot like the novels by Alan Hollinghurst: much sitting around and talking at great length. But the author that comes most strongly to mind is Iris Murdoch. Her novels sometimes make you wonder whether the characters have anything to do other than sit and chat. Another touch that evokes Iris Murdoch: the frequent sound of rain pattering on the windows while a fire crackles in the hearth. One scene that seems like a direct steal from Murdoch is the sudden swooping of an owl – or some equally large bird – into a gathering of frightened people. I think the Murdoch novel where a similar incident occurs is either A Fairly Honourable Defeat or An Accidental Man.

Perhaps the main and only problem with the book, from my point of view, is that, even while accepting that it relies on a lot of talk, some conversations go on too long. One scene where Toby and his cousins are smoking hash – lasting 36 pages – brings on one of those I guess you had to be there feelings, what with all the giggling. The other long talk session – 53 pages – has three characters finally revealing the truth of the mystery at the heart of the book. Two of them have the pertinent information, which leaves the other one frequently asking rather lame what-happened-next? questions.

The scene does work, though, and there’s no question that it keeps a reader’s interest, in that it solves the mystery. That, in itself, is an odd development for a mystery novel. The solution to the reader’s curiosity comes, not through any ingenious sleuthing, but simply through the revelation of information that someone could not keep secret any longer. However, there is a surprising solution to the mystery of the attack on Toby that opened the book. In another respect, this book differs strikingly from the typical mystery, but it would not be fair to reveal that point here. Let’s just say that the ending does not tie things up with the usual nod to justice as we know it.

One aspect of the book that puzzles me is the sound of the conversation among the major characters. Strangely, they don’t sound Irish. Granted, they do sometimes use Irish expressions and pronunciations: ‘shite,’ for instance, instead of ‘shit.’ But the rhythms and cadences of their speech don’t have any of the lyrical quality that I usually expect from Irish speakers. And yet, the minor characters, such as the police, sound like Irishmen from the minute they step on stage. Could this be because they’re seen as belonging to a lower class? Does the author see them as somewhat more colourful character types, whereas the major characters are her own type of people whom she therefore hears speaking in ways that don’t have any peculiar inflections?

One final question about the book: the title, given as "The Witch Elm," is presumably a reference to an elm tree that figures prominently in the story. Within the text, though, it’s always referred to as a "wych elm." Is the change in spelling for the title a concession to North American readers who might be expected to balk at such a botanical oddity as a wych elm?

 

At the Strangers’ Gate (Memoir) by Adam Gopnik, 2017

In this book, Adam Gopnik tells about his arrival in New York as a hopeful young Canadian, his gradual finding his way in the world of writing and publishing, and his rise to prominence as a New Yorker writer. He does say, though, that such achievement never feels the way you thought it was going to feel. You look back and find that you have accomplished what you always wanted, that you’re living the life you dreamed of, but it doesn’t feel like that.

He tells entertaining tales about coping with mosquitoes, mice and rats – as well as eccentric human neighbours – in Manhattan. He paints himself as very much the typical New Yorker in adapting to and even embracing all the oddities of the life. He has some fascinating things to say about writing and publishing (magazines and books). He paints himself as somewhat of an incompetent jerk accidentally stumbling into success. He’s at his best when he gets into a specific anecdote or a study of a beloved character: Richard Avedon, for instance, his good friend. But even such a study has its contradictions and unexpected twists. (The dear friend can turn out to be quite malicious at times.)

The problem of the book, for me, is that Mr. Gopnik is so analytical, so intellectual in his approach to everything. He dissects and parses ad nauseum. He professes that his one skill in life is his ability to string words together effectively. To my taste, he’s too in love with words; he uses too many of them. He often can’t make a statement without at least three qualifiers in the sentence. It’s so heady! You’re not getting the feel of the life so much as you’re getting the workings of Adam Gopnik’s brain.

But he’s honest and candid, especially in his revelations about his relationship with his wife whom he has loved exclusively since they were reckless twenty-somethings. His chapter on sex in a long-time marriage promises to be daring on the premise that nobody else will write about such a thing. True, he does give some valuable insights into how the sexual side of the relationship morphs over time but I found the chapter duller than anticipated. But I don’t suppose it could be anything other than that. After all, a certain discretion must be maintained.

I skipped the long chapter on the SoHo art scene. Too esoteric for me. And, for someone unfamiliar with it, too much detail about the layout of the neighbourhood.

 

Deep Freeze (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2017

In this Virgil Flowers adventure, he’s called to a small town to investigate the death of a woman whose body has floated to the surface in an icy stream. She happened to be the town’s richest citizen, having inherited the ownership of the local bank from her father. As in most John Sandford books, there’s no mystery about who murdered her or why. We’re following the killer from the opening scene. As the investigation proceeds, however, there are puzzling circumstances around her death that don’t seem to mesh with the killer’s experience of it. In due course, he feels obliged to commit another murder but it takes us a long time to find out why. So it’s not as if there’s no mystery to keep us reading. And there are, of course, a couple of those little tugs of curiosity that are inevitable in any mystery: something nagging at the back of the detective’s mind, some fact that he can’t quite get a focus on but that might be crucial.

This book has all the steady plodding and interviewing, the checking on evidence and on witnesses that make John Sandford’s books so realistic. Once again, there’s the aspect of Virgil’s character that plays well into this type of investigation: he doesn’t ascribe to the typical cop’s policy of refusing to share information about a case with the locals; Virgil believes in keeping them clued-in because they can be a valuable source of scuttlebutt. But Virgil seems tamer and less colourful than in previous appearances. Is that because he’s settled in now with Frankie, his girlfriend, and he has fatherhood on his mind? We get what strikes me as a humorous nod to Mr. Sandford’s preoccupation with soft drinks when somebody offers Virgil a beer or a Pepsi and he declines, "being a Coca-Cola snob."

A passage of two or three pages gives us a very informative description of how divers work when searching under water for detritus that may amount to evidence. On the other hand, Mr. Sandford occasionally lapses into what strikes me as rather lazy story-telling, as in statements like: "Sawyer hadn’t yet gotten to Hemming’s house when Virgil arrived" and "Virgil went over to the Chevrolet dealership to talk to Lucy Cheever...." and "Virgil got to Moore’s house four or five minutes later." That sort of information – if required – could be conveyed more succinctly, if the author jumped right into the scenes without these prosaic introductions that slow the story down.

A secondary plot involves a scam whereby a team of locals conducts a thriving industry selling Barbie dolls equipped with pornographic voice recordings. A private investigator from California has been sent by Mattel, the owners of the Barbie doll business, to put a stop to this rip-off. Virgil, of course, crosses paths with this investigator who is, strangely, a notably unlikeable and unsympathetic character. This aspect of the novel introduces a certain amount of violence and threat but it never feels quite convincing to me; it has something of the feel of a "trumped up" issue (if we can still use that term without any political implications).

 

Hillbilly Elegy (Memoir) by J.D. Vance, 2016

J.D. Vance admits, in the introduction to this book, that there’s something absurd about his writing a memoir. It’s not as if what he has achieved, at the age of thirty-one, is extraordinary: college education, law degree from Yale, excellent job, lovely wife, comfortable home in California and two splendid dogs. The only thing that makes his life noteworthy is that someone of his background could achieve all this. Therein lies the point of the memoir which looks at how his life turned out the way it has and what that says about the state of America today.

Mr. Vance was born into hillbilly culture. His grandparents, on his mother’s side, had moved from the Appalachians to Ohio for the sake of employment but they lived within a community of former Kentuckians who kept the spirit of their origins alive. As a kid, Mr. Vance often travelled back to Kentucky for full immersion in an atmosphere of poverty, unemployment, violence and intense tribal loyalties. How, then, did he break free to attain the upper reaches of education and professional success? The short answer is that his grandparents saw the importance of education and hard work for getting ahead in life and they impressed those values on their grandson. The longer answer is the colourful, somewhat chaotic and turbulent story of Mr. Vance’s growing up.

Fascinating as the story is, Mr. Vance’s voice isn’t that of a natural story-teller. His persona as narrator doesn’t grab you by the throat the way some of the stronger voices of memoir writers can do. The tone here sounds like somebody who might well have studied law at Yale, then spent four years in the Marines (as Mr. Vance did): a buttoned-up, slightly stodgy approach to writing. Occasionally, he lapses into sociology – statistics and such – that sounds like it could be lifted from a government report.

Strange to say, though, that somewhat flat tone may serve the story better than a more hyped-up voice would. It could be that the lack of vim and vigour in Mr. Vance’s narration makes the anecdotes stand out all the more clearly on their own, without any authorial push. The material is left to leap off the page on the strength of its own energy.

One of the most striking features of the story is the character of Mr. Vance’s maternal grandmother, Bonnie Blanton Vance, better known as "Mamaw" (pronounced "Ma’am-aw"). I don’t think you’ll find any character in non-fictional literature who is more amazing. The woman was intensely loving and supportive, also volatile and violent, fun-loving and witty, wise, intelligent, sentimental, silly, prejudiced, dedicated and serious. She once threatened to set her husband ("Pawpaw") on fire if he arrived home again drunk. When he did, falling down on the couch in a stupor, she doused him with gasoline and lit it with a match. (They eventually separated; he moved to a house down the road but spent all day at her house.) Mamaw tended to reach for a gun to settle any argument. She had no hesitation about using bad language around her grandchildren and great grandchildren – whom she loved passionately. At times, she comes across like Ma Kettle with a shotgun and a foul mouth. She despised "organized religion" but sent most of her spare money to favourite churches. Her ideal embodiment of the American dream? Arnold Schwarzenegger: a strong, capable immigrant coming out on top.

As a teenager, Mr. Vance went to live with Mamaw when life with his mother was becoming too unstable. His mother had managed to qualify as a nurse but her dependency on drugs and booze created chaos in the home. Her fickle taste in men didn’t help either. Young J.D. got tired of the succession of temporary father figures he was supposed to bond with. He tried to keep his patience with his mother, but he finally exploded and told her to get her life in shape when she demanded that he provide a sample of clean urine for her so that she could pass the drug test at work.

Once he’d settled in with Mamaw, his grades improved – thanks, largely, to her encouragement, which could also be called her insistence. Having bought a special calculator that a math teacher had recommended, she was inclined to say: "I didn’t spend every penny I had on that little computer so you could fuck around all day." Not that she excused him from household work for the sake of his academic pursuits. If he didn’t take out the garbage, she’d tell him to "stop being a lazy piece of shit." Even when she was older and weaker, she kept at him with cracks like: "If I wasn’t crippled, I’d get up right now and smack your head and ass together."

As he rises higher and higher on what could be called the social ladder, Mr. Vance looks around him and tries to diagnose the problems besetting the culture he came from. Frankly admitting that he’s a conservative who is trying to reconnect with his Christian roots, Mr. Vance is not leaning towards left-wing solutions to the problems of unemployment and poverty in the Hillbilly world. He says a teacher at his old high school recently told him: "They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves." Mr. Vance seems to take to heart the comment by a friend who once worked in the White House and who felt that many of the problems plaguing impoverished communities can’t be solved. "But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins." Mr. Vance doesn’t hesitate to cite problems with the work ethic among the people he comes from. Several times, he refers to people he has known who refused reasonable work and demanded hand-outs; they claimed that they were being wronged when their laziness wasn’t rewarded according to their expectations.

Towards the end of the memoir, Mr. Vance allows that he still has trouble in his relationship with his mother. He knows that she loves him and he sincerely believes that she has tried many times to kick her destructive habits. He has helped her financially whenever he can but he’s still coping with a mixture of sympathy and anger towards her. People like himself, he says, "never stop loving, and we never lose hope that our loved ones will change. Rather, we are forced, either by wisdom or by the law, to take the path of self-preservation."

Given all that Mr. Vance went through in his upbringing, it may not be surprising that anger management continues to be a challenge for him. In spite of all the success he has achieved and the prosperity he has enjoyed, he sometimes experiences the urge to settle any disagreement or any personal clash with the kind of violence that was endemic in his early years. Sometimes, it’s up to his wife, Usha, to hold him back and remind him how far he has come. He ends his memoir on a night around two a.m. when he has just woken from a nightmare of a monster chasing him:

There was no Mamaw to comfort me. But there were my two dogs on the floor, and there was the love of my life lying in bed. Tomorrow I would go to work, take the dogs to the park, buy groceries with Usha, and make a nice dinner. It was everything I ever wanted.

So he pats one of the dogs on the head and goes back to sleep.

 

Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Essays) by Tony Hoagland, 2014

An article by Ian Brown in The Globe and Mail a few months ago brought this poet to my attention. The headline on the article was something like "The Best Poet You’ve Never Heard Of." It looked like the poet, Mr. Hoagland, who died this past October at the age of 64, had a quirky, humorous but realistic and down-to-earth approach to the art.

This book may not give you a fair impression of Mr. Hoagland’s poetry, though. It’s a collection of twelve of his essays, most of them previously published elsewhere. But it does give a good sampling of his intelligence, his personality and his devotion to literature. Roughly speaking, you could say that each essay focuses on a different kind of modern poetry or on some aspect of it that groups all its practioners into what could loosely be called a certain school of poetry. We get, for instance, the poets who make great use of idioms in their writing. Among the several other "schools," there are those whose poetry tends to be built on litanies or catalogues. One such poem, lacking verbs or personal pronouns, is constructed around words containing the letters ‘or.’ One essay is about poets who specialize in what could be called the spiritual aspects of life.

A theme that emerges in the book, although it isn’t addressed as a main topic, is that tastes in poetry change over the years. Mr. Hoagland points out, for instance, that in academic circles in the 1990s, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound no longer enjoyed the pre-eminence that they had in the 1950s. These changing tastes could have something to do with different ideas about what people want from poetry. Mr. Hoagland contrasts two statements about the essence of poetry. First, from William Wordsworth: "All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion ... recollected in tranquility." And from Wallace Stevens: "The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully." Although the statements don’t contradict each other, Mr. Hoagland points out, "they place distinctly different emphases on the function of poetry." The one offers readers a clarification of the world that helps them to live better. To scoff at this yearning, he says, would be like scoffing at oxygen. On the other hand, he says, to dismiss poetry that aims to disrupt or rearrange consciousness seems to foreclose "some powerful dimensions of poetry as an alternate language, a language expressive of certain things otherwise unreachable."

One of the essays that means the most to me is Mr. Hoagland’s defense of Sharon Olds. (I recently bought her latest book of poems, Stag’s Leap. That’s just the second book of poetry that I’ve ever bought – which tells you something about where she ranks in my pantheon.) Apparently, critics who consider themselves sophisticated scoff at Ms. Olds’ poetry because it’s so accessible and because it always trumpets the same thing: female sexuality and eroticism. Mr. Hoagland says that Ms. Olds sees the facts of our physicality as having a central meaning "precisely because they are experiences that resist codified understanding to which we must submit. Perhaps they are central because they humble the part of human nature that would prefer to hover above experience, as a rational angel."

Summing up his brief on her behalf, he says:

The dismissiveness of some critics only indicates the resistance that still exists to the news Olds carries: consciousness and unconsciousness, body and soul, swim in the same water, and they don’t like each other. Fortunate for us to have poets like Olds to preside over the endless negotiations.

Fascinating as Mr. Hoagland’s insights are, the book can be somewhat frustrating if you’re not familiar with most of the schools that he’s talking about. You begin to get the gist of one group but then you’re on to another group and sometimes it’s not quite clear what the difference is between them. Another aspect of the book that troubled me is that so much of it seems to be based on Mr. Hoagland’s aesthetic sensibility; it’s all about his opinions. He’ll say that one poet’s nonsensical, random images do have poetic coherence whereas another poet’s don’t and it may seem to me that there’s not much to choose between them. Or he’ll find meanings that are completely hidden to me. In one case, he says a poet’s erotic fantasies prompted by the sight of a female flight attendant ultimately reveal his fear of mortality. Huh? It must be admitted, though, that somebody so conversant in the art of poetry could very well see a lot in it that would escape me.

In the final essay – the one that gives the book its title – Mr. Hoagland argues that students in high schools should be studying fewer of the beloved classics. Too often, he says, poetry as taught seems prissy, esoteric and out of touch with current realities. But poems that have more resonance for today could be taught. For instance, he imagines a member of a congressional committee, when faced with a difficult decision, remembering a poem about someone’s confronting a troubling dilemma. In another situation, someone could call up the memory of a poem about the loneliness of a divorced urbanite. People could be comforted and reassured by exposure to poems expressing humour on the subject of sex and gender. "Poems," he says, "build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life." His twenty poems that might do great good for students range from poets as far back as Walt Whitman, on to Allen Ginsberg and right up to the present day in Anne Carson. Among them appears "Song of Speaks-Fluently," a translation of a work by an indigenous North American poet of Osage origins.

Could it save America if students took these poems to heart? Maybe not. But it might be a step in the right direction.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com