Dilettante's Diary
SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
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SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
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Head to Head
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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: Giant Little Ones (Movie); Midsummer Night's Dream (Play); Everything Is F*cked (Self-Help); kaddish.com (Novel); The 18th Abduction (Mystery); Days by Moonlight (Novel); Educated (Memoir); The Book of Delights (Essays)

Giant Little Ones (Movie) written and directed by Keith Behrman; starring Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann, Taylor Hickson, Maria Bello, Kyle MacLachlan, Niamh Wilson.

This is a situation where a reviewer, for fear of revealing too much about what happened in a movie, might warn readers that spoilers are coming up. But that’s only if the reviewer knew what happened. This review is going to be mostly about my trying to guess what happened.

It’s about teenagers in some Ontario town (Sault Ste Marie, as it turns out). The main character, Franky (Josh Wiggins), is turning seventeen. People tease him about being gay, but I don’t know why. Granted, he seems a little hesitant to get it on with his girlfriend, but so what? On the night of his big birthday bash, though, something happens between him and his best buddy, Ballas (Darren Mann). It’s a scene – if you can call it that when you can’t see anything – lasting for a couple of minutes in complete darkness during which we hear a bit of mumbling, breathing and scuffling. Later, we’re led to believe that something sexual took place between the two guys. But what? And how is it that the other teens all know about it right afterwards? The ensuing problem between Franky and Ballas gets played out by their attacking each other’s bicycles. Teens battling over bicycles in the 21st century? This feels like a throwback to the 1950s.

Further on the sexual front, something takes place in the locker room of the boys’ swim team. Somebody taunting somebody else about his sexuality. (The boys all look so much alike that it’s hard to tell what’s happening to whom.) As a result, the team coach gives the boys a good talking to about team spirit. His solution to the problem: the boys have to make a choice about whether or not they want to be in the locker room with a certain other guy. So they divide up accordingly. Huh? How does that solve any problem?

Eventually, Franky forms a friendship that may or may not be platonic with Natasha, the sister of his buddy, Ballas. Natasha apparently has experienced some sexual trauma of her own. Meanwhile, Franky’s having trouble coming to terms with the fact that his father (Kyle MacLachlan) has left the family for a male lover.

The movie does have its merits. Some of the scenes are engaging – as the one, for example, where Franky’s father finally talks to him about what happened in his, the father’s, love life. All of the acting is fine. But most of the characters are not interesting people on their own terms, not people you’d be keen to know better if you met them at a party. The viewer’s interest in them stems only from their function in the story, their position in the plot, so to speak.

One of the exceptions is Maria Bello in the role of Franky’s mother; she struck me as a real person with depth and history. Oddly enough, the other most interesting character, for me, was "Mouse," (Niamh Wilson), a girl who has a laconic, in-your-face candour and who, apparently, would rather be a boy. Fair enough, but she goes around sporting an obviously fake penis in her jeans. Would anybody actually do that?

If you had read the script beforehand and you knew what was going on and what the writer/director Keith Behrman was trying to say, you’d probably call this a poignant, sensitive movie, beautifully photographed. If you haven’t read the script beforehand and you don’t know what the writer/director is trying to achieve, you might have a somewhat less enthusiastic response. I’m guessing that its theme has something to do with people – adults as well as teens – learning to accept their sexuality. But I’m not sure about that. The comprehension problem is due, in no small measure, to the mumbling of the actors. If a person could understand more than fifty percent of what they say, perhaps the movie would make more sense. Filmmakers probably think the dialogue is perfectly clear in movies like this because they know the script and they know what everybody’s meant to be saying. Does it ever occur to the filmmakers that maybe they should test the results on people who don’t know the script?

One further question: what’s with that title? Generally, I don’t pay much attention to the titles of movies but this one seems particularly inept. What is it trying to say? Maybe it’s implying that these teens are actually much bigger, stronger characters than the world gives them credit for being. Okay. But surely no one is seeing them as "little ones."

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Play) by William Shakespeare; directed by D. Jeremy Smith; music by Kevin Fox and Tom Lillington; designed by Julia Kim; starring Steven Burley, James Dallas Smith, Siobhan Richardson, Ahmed Moneka, Nick Dolan, Nathaniel Hanula-James, Marissa Orjalo, Kelsi James. August 15, 2019

We thought we’d missed Driftwood Theatre’s musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer. However, it was our good luck to discover that the company had one more Toronto performance of their musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while our nine-year-old granddaughter was visiting from out of town. This was her first Shakespeare and it was a roaring success.

The show took place in a courtyard between two buildings downtown. All the actors performed with great elan. Ahmed Moneka projected oodles of charm as Puck, even though his English was sometimes difficult to understand. (I understand that he, being an Iraqi refugee, is a relatively recent arrival in Canada.) If I were to pick one favourite among the talented performers, it might be Kelsi James, in the role of Helena. That could be because the role strikes me as one of the most interesting in terms of its shifting moods. At first, Helena is a woman pleading for love from a man who ignores her and then she’s a woman who is feeling hurt by what seems to be a pretense of love from another man. Ms. James’ way of conveying the vulnerability of the character evoked tremendous sympathy.

 

Everything Is F*cked (Self Help/Psychology/Sociology) by Mark Manson, 2019

When you pick up a book with a title like this, you feel a spurt of bravery that tells you you’re ready to immerse yourself in the world view of a brash pundit who dishes out in-your-face advice to young, hip people. This, apparently, is who Mark Manson is. His 2016 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck has sold over five million copies in the United States alone and his blog attracts over two million readers per month. No doubt one of the keys to his communication with so many people – a younger crowd, I’m guessing – is that he flings around four letter words as commonly as periods and commas. Even to an older reader, though, the profanity doesn’t seem offensive; it comes so naturally to him that it captures the exact tone of voice of a person of his generation.

When you get some way into his text, however, you find that his advice – for the most part – isn’t always unconventional or radical. Sometimes, he can sound like a typical Psych 101 course. As for instance, when he’s talking about the stages of psychological development from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. (This sounds to me like it’s modelled on the theories about development by the famous child psychologist Jean Piaget.)

Still, there’s a counter-intuitive freshness to a lot of what Mr. Manson has to say. One of his key points is that people are screwed up by a world that keeps hyping them with hope. Nobody is willing to accept reality for what it is; everybody’s yearning for something better, some unattainable ideal, rather than focussing on what they can do about life right here and now. In this sense, says Mr. Manson, the so-called "pursuit of happiness" is toxic. "Don’t hope for better," he urges. "Just be better."

Another of Mr. Manson’s themes is that the intelligent brain and the feeling brain are in conflict in every human. The thinking brain can see the right course of action but it’s nearly always the feeling brain that carries the day – whether it comes to nutrition, fitness, smoking or any other human activity. Mr. Manson sees the human being as a kind of clown car, one of those circus things with the wheels all wobbly. In this one, the two clowns – intellect and feeling – are battling over control of the vehicle. (I’ve seen this concept illlustrated by another metaphor: the puny human, i.e. the intellect, trying to control the huge elephant, i.e. the emotions. I think it was in the book The Reasonable Mind by Jonathan Haidt [not yet reviewed on Dilettante’s Diary] that this was so well explained.)

Mr. Manson’s in-your-face tone doesn’t betray a glib or superficial treatment of his subject. He’s well versed in many of the important philosophies our culture is built on. Plato, of course, being a major one. No less an eminence than Immanuel Kant comes in for much consideration on the question of what really matters in life. Friedrick Nietzsche is cited as someone who saw the importance of living without false hopes. What Nietzsche wanted for a human was "amor fati", the love of fate. This means:

....that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary.

A major problem with our culture, as Mr. Manson sees it, is that the appeal to false hope keeps promising to eliminate pain. Pain is inevitable, he says, and it’s the only way to growth. The important thing, he says, is to decide what kind of pain is the right one for you, the one that will enhance your character. In a similar vein, he points out that true freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you want. True freedom is about self-denial. It’s the capacity to decide what you can do without, what your limits are.

As the fruit of what must have been exhaustive research, he dishes up many fascinating details to illustrate his theme. (His generous end notes offer further probing reflections.) One of the points that I found most startling: it was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who initiated the era of modern advertising. In the 1920s, the tobacco industry was trying to foist the smoking habit on women; until then it had been considered crass and unfeminine for women to smoke. Bernays diagnosed the problem the industry was having. Up to that point, advertisers had thought they could lure customers by touting facts about the superiority of their products. But Bernays realized that you catch people by hooking them emotionally. So he staged photos of glamorous women smoking in the Easter Sunday parade in New York. The result, as Mr. Manson puts it: we now have "equal-opportunity lung cancer."

Mr. Manson ends his book with a consideration of Artificial Intelligence. If I’m reading him correctly, he seems to be saying that AI is probably going to overtake us humans and that that will probably be a good thing. As he sees it, AI will make for a better world than the one that we’ve modelled in our muddled way. Maybe, he says, we will become integrated with the machines themselves.

Our individual consciousnesses will be subsumed. Our independent hopes will vanish. We will meet and merge in the cloud, and our digitized souls will swirl and eddy in the storms of data, a splay of bits and functions harmoniously brought into some grand, unseen alignment.

Well, I’m not sure that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished but I probably won’t be around to see whether or not it happens. (Neither will Mr. Manson, I’m guessing.) In the meantime, though, maybe we can all benefit from some of his insights and – who knows? – we might just be able to avert the end of humanity that he’s envisioning.

 

kaddish.com (Novel) by Nathan Englander, 2019

On the first page of this book, a young man and his sister are arguing in her kitchen. It’s the day of their father’s funeral. (Their mother has long since de-camped with another man). The son, Larry, is baulking at the religious observances required of him. His sister, an intensely observant Jew, is insisting that he take up his duties as the chief mourner. It might be too much to describe Larry as a hedonist or a libertine but he is an ambitious guy who takes full advantage of the pleasures and satisfactions the secular world has to offer, so he doesn’t have much patience with religious obligations.

About one fifth of the way through this short book (it comes to 203 pages in total) things take a sudden, sharp turn in a different direction. It’s very tempting to reveal this startling change of circumstances for the sake of discussing the book. However, the blurb on the book’s jacket flap doesn’t reveal the surprise, so I’ll refrain from doing so out of respect for the author’s narrative aims.

Let’s just say that, to me, the book appears to be a study of how religious conviction can, not only shape a person’s life, but also inhabit that person’s entire being. Nathan Englander seems to take all the ritual and tradition of Judaism quite seriously, at least in so far as they can impinge on one person’s life. And yet, there is a current of gentle humour running under the surface. (At least, I think it’s there; maybe I’m not the best person to judge, given my limited familiarity with Judaism.) For instance, he offers this thought from a rabbi who sits down at a computer and surprises himself by finding his way into the technology, even though he’s quite inexperienced with it: "If one is well versed in the Torah, all other knowledge will be yours." This gentle humour certainly doesn’t amount to satire, let alone skepticism on the part of the author. In a scene where a rabbi is dealing with a troublesome school boy, you might expect an edgy or controversial note to creep in, but the author presents an astounding example of excellent pedagogy and psychology.

I can only conclude that Mr. Englander wants us to believe in the fullness of religion for his main character, whether or not it’s something that the rest of us can accept or identify with. There are many references to final judgement, to the divine tribunal, to the suffering of those whose death is not marked with the proper rites. Mr. Englander never questions any of these concepts; he simply presents them as realities for the person whose story he’s telling. And yet, the book ends with an ironic – even comical – twist that somehow brings together both religious and entrepreneurial goals.

Nathan Englander is one of the group of about twenty writers who were hailed by The New Yorker twenty years ago as the future of American literature. This striking little book is certainly consistent with that promise. The prose is excellent: clean, spare, incisive where necessary. For dazzling descriptive writing, there’s a man’s first impression of a cluttered Jerusalem neighbourhood with wires and cables running from the buildings in every direction, raising the thought that, if a man’s hands were big enough, "he could make the whole block dance like a marionette." Among the other examples of good writing, there’s this passage where the Internet is compared to the mind of God: "And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets...[my elipsis] ...the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker." A devout wife, when her husband asks if she would ever leave him, offers this nuanced answer:

"I can tell you I’d never leave you. I can also tell you that what makes any marriage work is the knowledge that no relationship should be taken for granted. That there is always a line where the one who’d never leave you is suddenly gone."

I have only one quibble about the writing. There are two rather long reports of dreams, one of them taking more than ten pages. I tend to agree with Henry James who said something to the effect of "tell a dream, lose a reader." In fiction, I want material that constitutes a convincing picture of reality, not some far-fetched falderol that shows how imaginative the writer can be. In Mr. Englander’s case, however, the author had earned my respect to the point that I forced myself to read these long dreams on the chance that there might be something in them that I should know. Was there? I’m not sure. I didn’t like the surrealistic, fabulous content but maybe it served a purpose in plumbing the depths of a character’s mind. Again, perhaps, it was a case of having to accept the truth of that person’s internal state without imposing your own views on it.

 

The 18th Abduction (Thriller) by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, 2019

There’s nearly always a new James Patterson book on the "Recommended" shelf at the library. Mr. Patterson is credited with having written (or co-written) more published books than anyone in history. The blurb on the jacket flap of this book calls him "world’s bestselling author." One of his most recent co-authorships was with no less a celebrity than Bill Clinton: The President Is Missing [2018]. Mr. Patterson is supposed to have said that his goal is to turn non-book-readers into book-readers. Admittedly, the quantity of his oeuvre is a bit worrying but it doesn’t mean that his books are necessarily bad. And who am I to dismiss such a wildly successful writer without ever having read his works?

So, to The 18th Abduction...

It’s about two cases involving Joe Molinari, an FBI agent, and his wife, Lindsay Boxer, who works for the San Francisco police. What’s occupying Lindsay is the disappearance of three female school teachers who were last seen leaving a bar together. Joe’s caught up in a situation that an immigrant from Bosnia has presented to him. Anna, the immigrant, has spotted the mastermind Serbian criminal who tortured and raped her after killing her husband and son. The villain was convicted by the International Criminal Court but, thanks to his ratting on several accomplices, is allowed to go free as long as he’s not caught committing any more crimes. Under an assumed name, he’s now living a life that is apparently innocent – or maybe not – as the owner of a steak restaurant in San Francisco. Anna is not pleased with his proximity and she wants Joe to do something about it.

First, the good things about the book. It moves quickly; the chapters are very short – three or four pages at most. You quickly get the feeling that you’re making progress. Just the thing, if you’re not much of a book reader. Meanwhile, the plot takes enough twists and turns to keep you from dozing off. Mind you, it might be necessary to suspend a bit of disbelief about things like Anna’s behaviour. Would any sane woman stalk her torturer the way this woman does? Chasing after him on her bike? Waiting in her parked car outside his house? Wouldn’t that be likely to lead to some trouble that Anna could better have avoided? Okay, maybe what Anna has been through strikes you as more than enough motivation for her action. After all, the stakes are pretty high here, aren’t they? Who can imagine a human being facing any worse circumstances? To the infrequent book reader that might serve as can’t-put-it-down fare.

Then why does the book strike me as well below the level of good thriller writing? (Apart from the exaggeration of the premise discussed above.) I think it’s mostly because of the characters. There’s nothing about any of the people that, to me, strikes an original note. Particularly in the case of Joe. He is such a fine, upstanding, noble guy. We’re told that he has built his life around the FBI’s motto of "Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity." (I’m thinking of somebody like Barbie’s Ken doll.) He’s so sympathetic that, when listening to Anna, he "could almost feel her terror and revulsion." After talking to her, his mind is "swimming in the horrors of the war in Bosnia." He’s not sure whether he can do anything about her torturer, but he’s "determined to do his best." He gets "angry and frightened" on her behalf, just when he should.

Lindsay doesn’t have much over Joe in terms of individuality, but she shows herself to be a good example of what is rapidily becoming a stock character: the tough and exceptionally competent female cop. She sure knows how to handle a crime scene. And yet, she’s not without stereotypical traits.When she sees Joe give Anna a gentle hug as a show of support, Lindsay feels "a twinge of possessiveness." Worse still, some years later, when she hears a re-hash of Anna’s tribulations, Lindsay tells us that "I sobbed into my husband’s jacket and I couldn’t stop." Maybe not that far from Barbie, after all.

Among other features that might appeal to the infrequent reader, we get the age-old lament in the face of evil: what kind of God would allow this? One character, a relatively harmless motel manager, supposedly has a way of making everything around him feel dirty, so much so that a little interview room at the cop shop, a room that was scrubbed every night, "felt greasy and covered in germs" because of this guy’s presence in it. Oh really? A couple of chapters dealing with a previous case of Lindsay’s provide more gore, if you like that sort of thing, but they don’t have anything to do with the plot of this book. (Maybe they have something to do with a writer’s commitment to a publisher regarding length of a book?)

The one character in the book that strikes me as somewhat interesting is a young man who happens to be a pimp. He fell into the business more or less by happenstance. He’s not that bad a guy and, when he realizes what he’s up against, he’s relatively co-operative with the police. Not at all what you expect of the typical fictional character in that role. When a character of questionable moral standing is the only one who appeals to me, that seems to say that my relationship to the work of these co-authors is dubious at best.

 

Days by Moonlight (Novel) by Andr Alexis, 2019

On the opening page of this yarn, our first-person narrator tells us that he was eating an egg and watercress sandwich when he received an important phone call. Of watercress he says: "It’s delicious and it reminds me of my mother’s garden." I liked that; it gave me the feeling that I was in the presence of a real person. So I read on.

The phone call was from a professor who’d been a friend of the narrator’s parents. The prof wanted the narrator, Alfred Homer, to chauffeur him on a trip around southern Ontario to try to dig up information about a Canadian poet, John Skennen, who seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. The prof wanted to find out if Skennen had died or if any of his former associates knew anything about what had happened to him. Alfred, being a botanist, decided to go along on the trip, hoping to find some interesting local flora.

That reference to the watercress sandwich – if taken as a touchstone with reality – was misleading. Things began to get pretty strange. (Maybe the book’s title should have warned a reader that some mischief was up.) The two travellers start running into so many bizarre situations that it feels as though they’re in a dream. Alfred gets badly bitten by dogs and ends up in a hospital where the medics intend to take out his tonsils. The two men then come to a town where an annual contest has teams of people building new houses as fast as they can and then burning them down. As a tip of the hat to fairy tales, there’s a stunningly beautiful woman who poses a riddle that suitors must answer correctly before they can court her. After a series of more and more far-fetched scenes, the book comes to its climax in a religious setting where our narrator finds himself endowed with some paranormal – miraculous? – gifts that unmistakably reference New Testament events.

In an author’s note to readers, Andr Alexis informs us that this isn’t meant to be a realistic book. He says it’s modelled on – or inspired by – several classic travel stories. Of the eleven that he names, only three titles are familiar to me: Paradiso, Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels. But Mr. Alexis says the two most important influences on the book are films: Teorema by Pier Paolo Passolini and Ugetsu Monogatari by Kenji Mizoguchi. Knowing nothing about either of them, I’m unable to say how this book may have benefited from their example.

As if to give you further hint that this isn’t a typical novel, it’s printed on thick paper that has an arty feel to it and the text appears in a brownish ink (which doesn’t always make for the easiest reading). Interspersed among the text are delicate drawings of the plants that Alfred is discovering along the way.

This was one of those books that I finished, not so much with pleasure, as with determination: how was all this nonsense going to end up? Would there be any point to it? (Maybe Mr. Alexis is giving a sly riposte to that question when he has one character say "There must be some respite from meaning, eventually.") At times, it seemed like an exercise in spinning yarns.

On looking at it again, though, I find that it does have its charms. The writing is lovely and virtually flawless (as we might expect from an author as revered as Mr. Alexis). Surreal as the proceedings are, thought-provoking issues do arise. The roles of truth and fiction in literature are debated. And the explanation of what happened to John Skennen proves to be profoundly metaphysical and existential at the same time.

Several of the reflections occur around theological topics. For instance, someone says that God’s absence is "very like the warmth on one side of the bed when your beloved has gotten up in the middle of the night and you reach over to touch the place where they’ve been." Believers wrestle with thorny questions about God’s will. In fact, the very meaning of "God" comes in for consideration. Although the religious carry-on in one town seems ridiculous to an objective observer, one of the ministers is remarkably reasonable. When challenged about the fact that she questions her faith, she says: "I think of us as creatures who are fated to interpret. We question everything. I believe it’s our fundamental nature to question. As such, how could our Lord be anything but unknowable?"

Several other perceptive comments include a man’s lament that he wishes he had truly loved a certain woman "instead of loving the way she made me feel." Towards the end of the book, Alfred, who has been mourning the loss of his parents, remembers them teasing each other and he comes up with this lovely thought:

...I was suddenly deeply grateful for the love they’d had for each other. I wanted to tell them, but, of course, there was no need. Existing as they did within me, they knew everything I did.

As a fringe benefit to the book, you could say that there’s a certain droll humour in finding commonplace names from our everyday lives – Sarnia, Brights Grove, Seaforth, Forest, Lucan and the like – in such an odd tale. Ditto for names of Canadian celebs, like Measha Brueggergosman. Outright comedy emerges here and there: once in a Tim Horton’s where a healing is taking place and another in an effort to extract a comatose man from a car. There aren’t a lot of outright jokes in the book, but one remark that I did find amusing was from a man who found it "strange to think that I and a woman I love are in a novel by someone from Ottawa." Apparently, some biting satire is intended in the scenario whereby a town of abolitionists welcomed black people but the white citizens didn’t like the way black people spoke English, so they weren’t allowed to speak on the streets. I also detect a hint of satire in a visit to a museum on Canadian sexuality: the displays are maddeningly abstruse and beside the point.

I suppose those literary precedents that Mr. Alexis cites in his note to the reader stand as a fair warning that this book falls into the genre of the picaresque, i.e. an episodic book that’s about some rogue’s travels, not about tying up plot points in a satisfying conclusion. So you have to abandon any expectation of getting to some hoped-for destination. Then, maybe, you can enjoy the pleasures that crop up along the way. Still, I can’t help wondering what we’re supposed to make of the miraculous hocus-pocus at the end of the book.

 

Educated (Memoir) by Tara Westover, 2018

I’m certainly not the first person to note that when you’ve been inundated with rave reviews for a book, a play or a movie, chances are that it won’t live up to your expectations: they’re just too high. That could explain my response to Educated, Tara Westover’s hugely popular memoir. But there may be other factors involved in my less than rapturous response.

Which is not to say that it isn’t a good book, even a remarkable one.

Born in the mid 1980s, Ms. Westover, the youngest of seven children, was raised on a rural property in Idaho. Her father made his living mostly by selling metal from his scrapyard but he occasionally got contracts for constructing barns and storehouses. While all of us probably feel that the influence of one or both parents was crucial in the forming of our characters and the shaping of our lives, there’s no one of whom that is more true than Ms. Westover, especially when it comes to her father. "Gene" (a pseudonym for Val) Westover stands out as one of the weirdest, scariest fathers ever portrayed in memoir. To say that he was Mormon would be like saying the Pope is Catholic. Val took his religion extremely seriously, so much so that he considered almost all other Mormons as not true believers. Rather, they were the ones who believed the tenets of the faith, but he and his family were the ones who practised it. He took the word of the bible literally, in many instances. He’d often pick a text and lecture the family on it at great length. Everything that happened to the family, no matter how disastrous, was God’s will.

On top of that, he was one of those survivalists who believed that the establishment was out to corrupt and enslave his family. He refused to let his kids attend school because they’d be subjected to brainwashing by "the Feds." In preparation for the Armageddon that he saw coming, he was stockpiling fuel, food and weapons in caverns dug out of the ground on his property. He demanded absolute obedience and would not tolerate his children’s – or his wife’s – crossing him in the slightest way. Some of the family members ultimately came to accept that he was probably suffering from bipolarism; a cognitive specialist once told Ms. Westover that her father’s condition sounded more like schizophrenia.

Ms. Westover’s mother, "Faye" (a pseudonym for LaRee) comes across as a gentler, more reasonable person – although she nearly always acceded to her husband’s demands. She tried a bit of home schooling with the kids but it didn’t get very far. She was more or less forced by her husband to take up midwifery as a way of bringing in a bit more money but she also worked as a herbalist, cooking up remedies and tinctures in her kitchen. Gradually, she became more and more convinced of the supernatural powers of her practice. Her business eventually became so successful that it was the biggest employer in the area. She was offered millions by way of a buyout but, convinced that she was doing the Lord’s work, she would not sell.

For lack of schooling, Ms. Westover was expected to spend most of her time helping her father in the scrapyard or her mother in the kitchen. It’s the scrapyard work that looms largest in the shaping of her story. Her dad was, to put it mildly, not the most meticulous or cautious of employers. Working conditions were wildly dangerous, with scrap metal flying in all directions. Speed was all that mattered to her dad. Inevitably, lots of injuries occurred, some of them quite serious. The only treatment offered – if any – was the mother’s homeopathic version. Hospitals and doctors were to be avoided at all costs, again, for fear of being sucked into "the Fed’s" agenda.

Through the encouragement of an older brother who’d managed to escape the family ethos and acquire education, Ms. Westover started reading and studying on her own. Guided by his advice she eventually qualified for something like a high school equivalency certificate. Then came an acceptance from Brigham Young University, followed by a Masters degree at Cambridge, a visiting fellowship at Harvard and then a Cambridge PhD in intellectual history. Along the way, she was coming to hear about feminism, to discover truths about free will and about finding yourself as distinct from the roles assigned to you.

Indisputably, a compelling story of self-realization. So why wouldn’t any reader be gripped by it?

For one reason, in my case, there’s so damned much of it. Much of the material is so depressing that the book seems longer than it is. Life in the Westover family amounts to one calamity after another. Every horrendous accident makes you think – okay, they’ve learned their lesson, they’re going to live differently from now on – but no, they carry on in their dangerous, haphazzard way. Every time somebody manages to recover from a potentially fatal incident, the family gives all the credit to the miraculous intervention of the mother’s herbal remedies, even though, in some cases, conventional medicine had to be brought in at the last minute. The bitter irony is that, in most of those cases, the danger of death would not have been nearly as threatening if conventional medicine had been sought in the first place.

But my problem with all the turmoil and strife relayed in this memoir has less to do with the quantity of it than with the character of the narrator. With a story that entails so much turbulence, you have to identify with the central character; if you do, you can hang in for the ups and down. For some reason, I found it hard to do that. Questions kept coming to mind along the lines of: Who is this person? How can she stand this? How could any young person in this era (she’s younger than my kids) endure such a harsh upbringing? Maybe this is more of a problem for a male reader; perhaps a female reader would identify with Ms. Westover in every catastrophe that she suffers through.

Also, I began to notice a complete lack of humour in the narrator. You might say that this is not a story where there’s any room for humour. And yet, if a memoir doesn’t show any humour at all, I have to wonder whether it’s a true reflection of life. Isn’t one of the most important human reactions to life the standing back and noticing – at times – that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s all pretty ridiculous and that you might as well laugh – or at least smile – at the absurdity of it? If an author can’t occasionally allow that note to creep through, I have trouble knowing whether or not this is a person that I can relate to.

Not that I don’t have the utmost sympathy for Ms. Westover. It’s more a question of my running out of patience with her. There are so many points where something happens and you think that this is going to be the decisive change for her. Many times, we’re told about "a fork in the road," that some occurrence would "change everything," that an event would "obliterate everything," that the author was "finished for life" with her family situation. That she had "felt the preliminary shock," that she was now waiting for "the seismic event that would transform the landscape." But no, every step forward involves a few steps back. Towards the end of the book, there’s a life-changing insight every few pages but, after every one of these epiphanies, there’s a relapse. Maybe the writing might have been edited and condensed in such a way that the arc of the narrator’s development would be somewhat more coherent and not such a stop-and-start affair.

One of the issues that takes up much of the last part of the book is Ms. Westover’s relationship with an older brother (not the one who encouraged her education). He and Ms. Westover had developed an affectionate friendship with each other; they had even invented a secret language just for the two of them. He also taught her some martial arts by way of self defence. But when he thought she was becoming too sexual in her dress or her behaviour, he rounded on her with the rage of an Old Testament prophet. And not just verbally. He’d grab her by the hair, stuff her head in the toilet and force her to admit that she was a "whore." He attacked her once in public and hurt her badly when he discovered that she was off to meet a boyfriend. To try to cover her shame, she tried to pretend it was all a joke. Sometimes, he would respond in the same vein, maybe offering an apology or a gift.

As a young adult, Ms. Westover tried desperately to make sense of what had been going on with this brother. She tried to get some acknowledgement of the harm that had been done. Her father rejected her claims on the basis that she had no proof of anything; he seemed to accept the son’s interpretation that it was all just fooling around. At times, her mother seemed to take Ms. Westover’s side and to regret not having defended her better, but then the mother would revert to the father’s position – which was that Ms. Westover was possessed by evil and was making trouble for the family by spreading these falsities.

In her journal, Ms. Westover had recorded her initial rage after the event; subsequently she recorded her brother's apology, which seemed to wipe out her first impression. She realized that she could live with the lack of clarity, that she could accept that it was impossible to know for sure how to look on what had happened.

The words of the second entry would not obscure the words of the first. Both would remain, my memories set down alongside his. There was a boldness in not editing for consistency, in not ripping out either the one page or the other. To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s. I have often wondered if the most powerful words I wrote that night came not from anger or rage, but from doubt: I don’t know. I just don’t know.

In that spirit of not-knowing-for-sure, Ms. Westover occasionally includes footnotes to the effect that other people’s memories of certain events differ significantly from hers in terms of chronology, participants and so on. Maybe that is one of the most important things the book has to offer. Although it’s is an excruciatingly detailed account of one person’s private life, the point of it – ultimately – as with any memoir – is that it shows how extremely complicated it is to develop a sense of self through inter-action with the people who are closest to us.

 

The Book of Delights (Essays) by Ross Gay, 2019

Ross Gay, an American poet who has won many awards, decided on his forty-second birthday, in 2016, to write a short essay each day for the coming year. Each essay would note something that brought him delight on that day. It wasn’t long into the year before he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the commitment to write every day, so he allowed himself a little slack time; that, in itself, became part of his "delight." We end up, then, with just a hundred and two essays for the year. They average about two pages each. Part way through the year, Mr. Gay caught himself storing up ideas but he abandoned that practice because it struck him that that kind of hoarding was contrary to the spirit of the project. Each essay was meant to be a spontaneous burst of "dailiness," almost the kind of thing you could jot on the back of your hand during a trip to the washroom.

The prospect of a writer’s rhapsodizing about something every day is enough to scare off a reader like me. Nothing could be more off-putting than a daily diet of sweetness and light. That’s not a true reflection of what life is like. However, Mr. Gay is such a distinguished poet that maybe I should give him a chance? It wasn’t long into the book, that I felt somewhat reassurred by Mr. Gay’s acknowledgement of the darker side of life. He’s talking about a black man who, as a child in the 1920s, was subjected to medical experimentation which involved radiation that created a fist-sized hole in his head. Mr. Gay concludes: "I’m trying to remember the last day I haven’t been reminded of the inconceivable violence black people have endured in this country."

It’s usually thoughts about the situation of black people that bring out the negativity in Mr. Gay. A man of mixed race himself (black father, white mother), Mr. Gay speaks from personal experience. Sometimes he addresses the issue directly, sometimes he doesn’t. In an anecdote about being taken aside for an intimate pat-down by airport security, he leaves it to us to infer the reason for the extra attention paid to him. While attending a poetry conference, he and another black poet find themselves in a hotel elevator bearing a framed quote from Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Gay notes that the notion of two African American poets would have been unthinkable "to this Great American (Jefferson, not me)."

Apart from thoughts like that, Mr. Gay’s essays are almost all good humoured and cheerful. However, it took me some time to warm up to his persona as embodied in this writing. His sentences can be confusingly sinuous and twisting; sometimes the syntax is indecipherable. There’s almost a stream of consciousness happening. Getting to the end of a sentence can be like finding your way through a maze. Talking about the joy of writing by hand, he (kind of) tries to justify his style:

And consequently, some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness, the accruing syntax, the not quite articulate pleasure that evades or could give a fuck about the computer’s green corrective lines (how they injure us!) would be chiseled, likely with a semicolon and a proper predicate, into something correct, and, maybe, dull. To be sure, it would have less of the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.

Some syntax problems crop up. Talking about a certain kind of shout during a game, he says: "It’s an action that, after I shouted it, delighted me in part because among the sorrows of adulthood is this action can feel more fantasy than possibility?" There’s this about a nap:

I was moving in and out of sleep, dappled by the May light limning the leaves of the big street trees above me, held by the warm limestone I was half-propped against while this reader or that read what struck me, half-dozing, as a beautiful poem, my legs drifting like sails on a boat, like the man lying down on Maple....

Are we dealing with inadequate editing here?

The photo on the jacket flap shows Mr. Gay to be a good-looking, pleasant fellow and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe if you know him for who he is, if you recognize the sound of his voice and you can respond to it in a friendly way, then you can enjoy this writing from the get-go. In the acknowledgements, he thanks many people for having read these essays before they were published. Were they all friends who caught his voice more easily than I did?

In one essay, Mr. Gay happens to mention that the university prof who was supervising his PhD thesis asked him if he spent as much time on his prose as on his poems. Then she gave him a copy of Writing Prose (the ninth edition); maybe his telling us about the prof’s intervention is a way of acknowledging that prose is not his forte? One or two of his essays, very short ones, do read almost like poems. Also, he plays around with words in a way that you can accept when you know it’s coming from a mischievous poet: "flummoxment" and "rehabbing."

Whatever my quibbles with the prose style, for me, the ultimate test of a book is the answer to this question: does it tell us anything new or worth knowing about what it’s like to be a human being on this planet? In the case of Mr. Gay’s book, the answer is a resounding "YES." In some quirky ways, these little notes tell us more about what a man’s life is like than some of the prolix novels that weigh down the best seller shelves. (It’s surprising how well we come to know, just through casual references, Mr. Gay’s parents and grandparents.) He takes us intimately into his life in almost every respect. For instance, he drops the information that he is seeing a therapist. And, in the midst of all the delight, there is the recognition of angst as a part of life:

I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it...."

We don’t hear much about relationships or sex (except that he has a partner named Stephanie) but he does tell us about the relief of finally peeing in the seat of his truck one day when he was stranded in a city with no access to a bathroom. And, in telling us about his ritual for oiling his body, he does mention his genitals. Most authors writing in the first person wouldn’t even acknowledge that they have them.

Some of Mr. Gay’s notes that I like best are the simplest, the least dramatic. For instance, there’s the time he’s walking through an airport and he’s struck by the way some female airport employees are relating during a work break. One young woman is fixing an older woman’s shirt collar, pulling it out from under her sweater and straightening it. That is an example of human kindness of a sort that’s so commonplace that we might not notice it if we didn’t have somebody like Mr. Gay to point it out.

Among the less sanguine comments on humanity, there’s Mr. Gay’s observation that the intolerance of loitering in public places has to do with sexual repression and with the judgement that any loitering person is not fulfilling his or her most important fuction in our society: being a consumer. In an even darker vein, he notes the fact that so many public statues (in the US, at any rate) are sculpted with a gun in their hands, probably at the behest of someone "who is wealthy, who benefits in some very shortsighted way by the union of public figures and weapons."

One of the most astonishing insights comes when Mr. Gay’s talking about the relatively new science (to me) about how the roots of trees in a forest communicate with each other and help to meet each tree’s needs. This leads Mr. Gray to thoughts about about human communication: "joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away."

If I had to pick one statement or aphorism as a favourite take away from the book it would be this: "...delight doesn’t truck with ought. Or should, for that matter." And for sheer beauty of writing that captures one aspect of our world and nails it perfectly, how about this description of "metallic blue-green" wings" of bumble bees and "their purr, their wobbly veering from bloom to bloom"?

Although the book is built on a foundation of good cheer, there isn’t a lot of what would be categorized in literary terms as humour. But one little bit of dialogue that Mr. Gay reports does, to my taste, have a definite ring of comedy. He’s remembering that, at the age of nine, he had seen the movie The Exorcist on tv and had been terrified by it. When he and his brother Matt, who was a couple of years older, were in bed, this exchange took place:

Me: Matt, am I going to be possessed?

Matt: I don’t know.

Me: Am I possessed?

Matt (pulling the covers over his head): I don’t know. Maybe.

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