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Nov 10/19

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

Reviewed here: Yesterday (Movie); The Body in Question (Novel); Cream (Short Story); Chances Are... (Novel); Paint  2019 (Art); Never Tell (Mystery)

Yesterday (Movie) written by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis; directed by Danny Boyle; starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Sarah Lancashire, Justin Edwards, Robert Carlyle.

Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), a young Englishman, is striving – with a spectacular lack of success – to make it as a pop singer. So he’s thinking of going back to his teaching career. But a bus runs into Jack when he's riding his bike home one night. The cause of the accident: sun flares knocked out electricity worldwide. We eventually discover that the sun flares also made certain aspects of our historical culture disappear as if they never were. When Jack sings a song by the Beatles now, everybody thinks it’s his own original song. He tries to explain about the Beatles, but nobody has ever heard of them. (Later in the movie, we find out that there’s also a complete lack of knowledge about things like Coca-Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter.)

Given that weird premise, this might have been a movie that I would have avoided. But it wears its sci-fi origins lightly. The phenomenological situation is never actually explained. (At least not as far as I could tell.) It’s just something that you have to accept. So Jack does. He finds that by resurrecting the Beatles' material as if it were his own, he can build a wildly successful career.

It’s an outrageous story, unbelievable, corny and sentimental. One of those warm-hearted movies that’s supposed to be a lot of fun and to send you home feeling great.

Which it does.

One reason is that you know from the outset that it’s a fantasy. Unlike the case of the typical showbiz bio, you don’t have to take Jack’s meteoric rise seriously because it’s like a dream. That also offers lots of opportunity for satirizing the biz. As in a marketing meeting where hot-shot recording smarties are rejecting Jack’s proposed titles such as "Abbey Road" and "Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" for his new album.

This movie has some of the elements of the British classics from Ealing Studios. That feeling comes through most strongly in the scenes of Jack with his parents (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar). Their house is one of those cozy British abodes: crammed with knick-knacks and flowery wall paper. Some of the best comedy in the movie comes in the scene where his folks implore him to perform one of his new songs. Jack sits down at the piano and launches into "Let It Be." The performance keeps being interrupted by the doorbell, by phone calls, by a visit from a neighbour, but all the while, the elders profess polite interest in the song that they keep referring to as "Leave It Be" or "Let Him Be."

Less in the traditional vein, the more prominent feature of the movie is the visual flair: almost a psychedelic array of colour and pizazz. In this respect, it’s a real movie-movie, and a very contemporary one. One memorable scene has Jack and his girlfriend, Ellie, dancing in a highway tunnel. In a less Hollywood mode, though, Jack isn’t a typical matinee idol. He looks like an ordinary guy. That makes us more sympathetic to his story. About Ellie (Lily James), the girlfriend, I’m not so sure. Her prettiness edges close to movie star territory. I’m wondering if the story might have worked a little better if she looked more like a home town girl. To my mind, that would suit her role: the loyal friend who supported Jack right from the dismal start of his career and who has loved him all the way through. Why Jack is so hesitant to respond to Ellie, I don’t quite know. For a while I wondered if it was going to turn out that he was gay. Maybe he’s just one of those guys who can’t see what’s staring him in the face. In any case, the struggle over whether to chose Ellie or fame adds dramatic tension to the story.

Some other characters who stand out in supporting roles include Kate McKinnon as the manager who gets her claws into Jack. Ms. McKinnon comes leaping off the screen in a hilarious parody of the scheming termagant, dishing out bile with sweetness and glamour. Joel Fry, as Jack’s friend Rocky, starts out as a doofus who always has too much to say at the wrong time but eventually proves to be good-hearted. Singer and song-writer Ed Sheeran takes one of those rare turns where a pop star plays himself and, in this case, a star who is surprisingly modest and magnanimous.

Near the ending, the movie pushes even further into fantasy with an imaginary visit involving a famous person who came to a tragic ending many years ago. I would normally cringe at something so far-fetched but this was a beautiful scene.

Oh, and by the way, some great music – by some guys from Liverpool who were apparently very famous back in the day.

 

The Body in Question (Novel) by Jill Ciment, 2019

This is, apparently, a very popular book. I’ve seen good reviews of it in high profile publications and, when I signed up for it at the library, there were some three hundred persons ahead of me on the waiting list.

The novel is about a man and a woman who conduct a love affair while they’re on a jury for a murder trial. For the first half of the book, we don’t know the names of the woman and man, only their designations as jurors. She is C-2 and he is C-17. She’s in her mid-fifties and he’s in his early forties. She’s a photographer; he’s a professor of anatomy at a medical school. And she, by the way, happens to have a husband who’s in his eighties.

For a while, I was wondering why this book was such a huge success. The love affair, if you can call it that, seems rather perfunctory. Not much emotion. Almost what psychiatrists would call a case of "flat affect." In fact, the woman at one point admits that she has wanted to prove to herself that she could still have a fling before she was too old for one. Her younger lover seems to be developing some feelings for her, but she’s not encouraging any such attachment. Not the most exciting affair ever.

However, it is interesting to see how the jury functions, particularly as it’s sequestered. In their motel, the jurors aren’t allowed any tv or media. Not even phones. They can Skype with their families, but during those conversations, deputies are standing by to make sure that there’s no discussion of the case that’s being tried. The jurors eat together, again supervised by deputies; occasionally they’re taken on a recreational outing like a visit to a museum or a bowling alley. The omni-presence of the deputies requires some clever scheming on the part of the lovers to arrange their trysts. A couple of conjugal visits do take place but C-2's elderly husband is so discomfited by the circumstances that there isn’t any love-making, in spite of his having taken the requisite medication.

The case being tried is that of a teenage girl accused of having burned her baby brother to death. The accused appears to be on the autistic spectrum and to be developmentally delayed. There is some suggestion that she wanted to set the house on fire and then acquire heroic status by rescuing the baby. On the other hand, there is the possibility that her twin sister, who is smarter and more capable, started the fire with the assistance of her boyfriend, a somewhat disreputable character. I don’t know whether readers are expected to figure out exactly what happened and who was responsible for the baby’s death. It seems to me the evidence could be interpreted either way. I’m wondering if the author, Jill Ciment, intends this as an example of the fact that there often may not be any clear explanations for such crimes.

I think the author may also be trying to show that jurors tend to be irrational and fundamentally biased in their verdicts. Their reasons for their votes strike me as mostly arbitrary. But the jurors are vividly and skilfully sketched in very brief strokes. Even without knowing their names, you get a strong sense of their personalities: the church lady, the school teacher, the engineer and so on. One young woman wears a sexy dress but C-2 finds that she’s rather sweet and modest: "She must have gotten her courtroom dress code from TV, where female attorneys always show cleavage."

In the second half of the book, the trial has ended and C-2 has returned home to her husband. It would be unfair to the author (and to any reader of this review) to reveal what happens, so let’s just say that C-2 (we now know her name is Hannah and the young lover's is Graham) has to cope with some pretty major problems that have developed. Now the book becomes more intense, more absorbing. No more casual, detached, taking things as they come, no going along with the flow. And yet, the writing is remarkably spare, concise and matter of fact. Maybe that’s what makes the drama so compelling. A couple of developments that bear a strong imprint of irony might seem hokey and contrived except that the writer’s steady, restrained way of telling the story helps us to accept these facts at face value.

Although the writing is mostly under-stated, every now and then a brief passage pops up to remind us that we’re in the hands of a highly skilled and sophisticated writer. My favourite bits include this impression of a summer night at the motel: "The outdoor walkway that connects the second-story rooms smells faintly of ammonia and mold. Next to the open stairwell, under a cold spotlight, in a funnel of moths, the ice machine hums." And there’s this comment from one character: "You know you’re old when you look and feel like the morning after but there was no night before." Another character has this thought: "Only a drunken old poet would imagine that he is going to rage against the dying of the light. At whom? Death is excessively attentive."

While Ms. Ciment’s story focusses intensely on human interaction, her writing seems to want to break loose when it comes to the larger world. For instance: "The stars are beautiful – diamonds, twinkles, something you can wish upon. The space in between the stars is the sublime – cold, black, and infinite, something that inspires awe and fear." And this reflection of Hannah’s puts human affairs into perspective vis a vis the natural world:

The noise is coming from the woods, insects rubbing one body part against another. The indifferent ceaseless rubbing speaks of life eternal, the insects that will be there long after she and Graham have gone their separate ways, after the motel has gone bankrupt, and the woods have taken over, after her husband has died and her own vision has narrowed and she can’t remember where to put her hands and feet, and her photographs are long forgotten.

 

Cream (Short Story) by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel); The New Yorker, Jan 28/19

A man is telling a friend about an odd incident that happened when he, the narrator, was a student. A girl had invited him to a piano recital she was giving. It took some effort to get to the venue by public transit, but he made the trek and brought a bouquet of flowers for the pianist. When he got there, there was no recital. The concert hall appeared to be abandoned. There was nobody around. He checked the invitation: he had the right date and location. To gather his thoughts, he sat on a park bench. An elderly man appeared next to him and started making enigmatic remarks. Did he know, the man asked, about a circle that had may centres but no circumference? After a few moments of this bizarre communication, the student closed his eyes and the elderly man disappeared. End of story – more or less.

Except that the student, now an older person, is still trying to figure out what happened. In some ways, this struck me as a Samuel Beckett piece: you’re not supposed to understand! Or maybe it was a kind of koan: just something to think about, something that’s good for brain exercise, but not something you’re meant to figure out. Or is this a new kind of fiction? Is the New Yorker telling us that our penchant for meaning in narrative is misguided? That there really is no meaning in life, that narrative coherence is a delusion?

Looking over the story again and again, however, I find that Mr. Murakami does hint at – not exactly an explicit meaning, not one that you can spell out – but a purpose, let’s say, for such stories. He says that, at difficult times in his life, the thought of that circle with many centres but no circumference comes back to him:

When we truly love somebody, or feel deep compassion, or have an idealistic sense of how the world should be, or when we discover faith (or something close to faith) – that’s when we understand the circle as a given and accept it in our hearts.

Still, he warns us that this is a far cry from the kind of certainty that we may long for: "Admittedly, though, this is nothing more than my own vague attempt to reason it out."

 

Chances Are... (Novel) by Richard Russo, 2019

Three American males in their sixties are looking back to the golden years when they were in college. It’s 2015 now and they’ve gathered at a Martha’s Vineyard cottage where some of their fondly remembered partying took place. It felt like they were on top of the world back then and the echo of that Johnny Mathis song that was so popular keeps coming back: "Chances are, your chances are, awfully good." But note the three dots after the title of the novel. Were their chances awfully good ... or weren’t they?

Lincoln, is the guy at whose cottage they’re re-uniting. He was raised in a more or less privileged environment. He’s now a successful commercial real estate broker. Teddy was raised by high school teachers who treated him with what might be called benevolent indifference. He’s now a retired college prof and publisher of a tiny press. Mickey comes from a working class family; when Mickey did surprisingly well on his college entrance exams, his father was so stunned that he seriously questioned whether he was Mickey’s father. In the years since, Mickey has somehow managed to sustain a career as a rock musician.

The guys haven’t seen each other much over the years; their lives are geographically quite disparate, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. Most of the chapters alternate between Lincoln’s and Teddy’s points of view. By way of narrative strategy, we don’t get Mickey’s point of view until late in the book. All three points of view involve a lot of reminiscing. There’s a danger in a novelist’s trying to resurrect the good old college days. Talk about the jollity and the pranks can produce an I-guess-you-had-to-be-there response in a reader. Richard Russo comes close to falling into that trap but he neatly side-steps it.

As the reunion of the three pals gets underway, an emerging theme is the absence of one of the gang. Jacy was a key member of the group back in the day. To the disappointment of all three guys who were each a little in love with her, she was engaged to a preppy guy nobody liked. But she disappeared on a memorable weekend at the cottage in 1971, leaving not a trace. The question of what happened to her looms larger and larger, to the point that the novel ultimately becomes something of a mystery/thriller. Having started out with a group of people who were exploring their feelings and sharing their thoughts in a low-key way that felt true to life, a reader has to adjust to the shift in tone. Looking into Jacy’s past, we get some outright melodrama in a scene involving her parents and a strange visitor. There’s even a touch of Nancy Drew in Jacy’s searching her father’s office for the combination to a safe she has discovered. However, the characters are well enough established in their credibility and plausibility that we’re willing to hang in with them on this quest to find out what happened to Jacy.

Quite apart from the thriller-like traits of the book, Mr. Russo offers plenty of the kind of insights that come with a higher quality of literature. Just some of them:

  • "Was this what we wanted from our oldest friends? Reassurance that the world we remember so fondly still exists? That it hasn’t been replaced by a reality we’re less fully committed to?"
  • "Of the many bones he had to pick with Obama, this one topped the list; the man seemed to believe the world was a rational place in which everyone proceeded from goodwill."
  • One of the guys has this thought about his wife: "She, like their daughters, always enjoyed explaining how what was wrong with women was really men’s fault."

In the months after Jacy’s disappearance, Teddy had a meeting with the guy she was engaged to marry. The complex feelings roiling under the account of that meeting are like a volcano threatening to explode. For an actor, to show the range of the fiancs emotions would make a wonderful showcase.

Of the three male friends, I found Teddy the most interesting. There’s something quietly intriguing about him. He stands apart, somehow, not least, because he’s the kind of man who is attracted to the writings of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. There seems to be something secret about Teddy. Does it have something to do with his sexuality? A lot of people think he’s gay but, as far as he’s concerned, they’re wrong. When we do learn the truth about his circumstances, we care all the more about him.

One of the most outstanding characters, although in a minor role, is Lincoln’s father: a small man, something of a martinet with absolute assurance about his opinions on everything, a man whose lifestyle gave him the air of a plutocrat (even though his business was actually failing). His wife had this incisive comment to make to Lincoln: "The thing to understand about your father is that you always have a choice. You can do things his way, or you can wish you had."

In one present-day scene, Teddy visits an outlook over the sea where he and Jacy had a memorable encounter on the fateful weekend. The dialogue between him and some tourists visiting the spot now crackles with the writer’s humorous take on certain kinds of elderly Americans.

A sample of particularly beautiful writing comes in this metaphor, looking back at Jacy’s graduation:

The whole weekend felt like a ride on a merry-go-round, where all her jubilant classmates straddled colorful horses that went up and down, while she alone was consigned to a stationary bench that resembled a church pew – on the same ride as everybody else but somehow not sharing the same experience.

Some aspects of the book are less pleasing. A jerk who lives near the cottage and who has some acrimonious contact with our friends is too awful. A retired cop who had originally investigated Jacy’s disappearance goes on a long tirade of several pages about the ways that men are violent towards women. To what point? His rant doesn’t move the story forward; it reads like an author getting something off his chest. For the final solution to the mystery about Jacy, one person has to do a lot of explaining for many pages, with small interjections from listeners. This doesn’t make for very dynamic reading – it would never work on stage – but the tale being told is gripping enough to keep our attention.

Perhaps the book’s most important message – the one we can all take away from it – is this one from a character who has a lot to account for:

"But that’s the thing about lies, right? Individually they don’t amount to much, but you never know how many others you’ll need to tell in order to protect that first one, and damned if they don’t add up. Over time they get all tangled up until one day you realize it isn’t even the lies themselves that matter. It’s that somehow lying has become your default mode. And the person you lie to most is yourself."

 

Paint 2019 (Art) curated by Christopher Cutts; Aird Gallery, 906 Queen Street West, Toronto; October 10 - November 1, 2019.

Because of renovations at the provincial government buildings, the Aird Gallery has been kicked out of its venue at the corner of Wellesley and Bay streets. The dislocation of the gallery is expected to last for some years. Meanwhile, the Aird personnel are to be congratulated for finding another home for the duration. If the gallery had fallen out of sight for some years, it might have proved impossible to get it up and running again.

But what a huge come down this is for the Aird – literally! Whereas the original gallery, a beautiful, airy space, had huge windows opening onto a courtyard, the new location is a basement space about one quarter the size of the previous one. True, it’s clean and bright, the walls are painted white, but the space is so cramped that it’s almost impossible to stand back and get a good look at any of the larger works. Even the smaller works are hard to appreciate, crammed as they are among other works.. To make matters worse, the harsh lighting creates a glare on some of the paintings, making it impossible for a viewer to see them properly.

However, maybe we have to put up with these disadvantages for the sake of keeping the Aird going. This show features about forty works curated by Christopher Cutts, owner of a distinguished Toronto gallery. The show was open to submissions by artists at various stages of their careers. I don’t know how many works were submitted, but from the scuttlebutt that I picked up, it sounded like many artists were eager to get into this show.

A curator’s – or juror’s – choices are, of course, bound to be somewhat subjective. Nobody could claim to have infallible decision-making powers when it comes to selecting art. In any show, you have to accept that you’ll disagree with the curator about some of the choices. In this case, though, a lot of the work is so kooky that it makes you wonder whether this is just a conversation artists are having with each other. Is there any attempt to communicate with the wider public? Not that I disagree with being daring and adventurous in art, with pushing the envelope. We need artists to do that. But much of the work here fails to hit any sort of target, it seems to me.

Which is not to say there aren’t some fine works in the show. Some of them are competent in a conventional way – landscapes, portraits, cityscapes – but not particularly interesting, I find. Among the more attractive ones in the somewhat traditional vein, there’s something sensitive and tender about Golnaz Kainipour’s "Seeking Happiness" – an acrylic painting of a dad (presumably) as seen from behind, wearing only tighty-whities, while holding a child who is peering over his shoulder at us. Nobody could deny the droll appeal of Kristy Blackwell’s oil painting of a young woman holding a balloon emblazoned with the words "Is This It?" Audrey Smith’s "The Listener" done in bold, impressionistic brush strokes, conveys a real sense of atmosphere in its depiction of two people standing on a street talking.

The somewhat more edgy works that spoke to me include Cherie Daly’s little "Zig Zag" – some black hieroglyphic markings on white. Anita Granger’s "Kitchen Still Life" doesn’t evoke anything resembling a kitchen (unless there’s a touch of humour in the title) but there is a pleasing flow of greens and yellows in abstract patterns. A particularly strong abstract is Hyeran Lee’s "My Way." Consisting mostly of splashes of reds, it’s anchored effectively by a black shape in the upper left quadrant looking vaguely like a football helmet. Another abstract that pulls in the eye is a combination of sharp, geometric shapes in Gerda Wekerle’s composition based on the Redpath Sugar building on the Toronto Waterfront.

It may not be surprising that one of my favourite works is one of the only ones using watercolour as a major component: "Failure to Understand the Flow of Water" an abstract by Andrew Cripps creates a lovely evocation of landscape, if not a realistic portrayal, with gentle greens and blues.

 

Never Tell (Mystery) by Lisa Gardner, 2019

This is the third Lisa Gardner book that I’ve read (her 21st) and I’m becoming quite a fan. She has a way of pulling you into her story that makes for absorbing reading.

In this episode, her star detective, D.D. Warren of the Boston Police Department, is called in to supervise the investigation of a case in which a pregnant young woman, Evie, is found by police in the presence of her husband, Conrad, who has just been shot dead. Evie’s holding the gun but she claims she didn’t kill Conrad. She does eventually admit that, upon walking in and finding him dead, she shot up his computer (for her own reasons, yet to be revealed). It just so happens that D.D. Warren remembers Evie from an earlier case. Some sixteen years earlier, she was investigated for accidentally shooting and killing her father, a renowned mathematician and Harvard prof. Hmmm, is it feasible that any woman could be innocently involved in two such cases???

Another main character in this story is Flora, a young woman who was kidnapped and held as a sexual slave for more than four hundred days. Since her escape, Flora, an intrepid and feisty young person, has been acting as a Confidential Informant for D.D. Warren. Flora’s brush with the dark side has given her a skill for infiltrating unsavoury corners of society and coming up with helpful tips for the cops. Her connection to this case is that she once met Conrad, Evie’s husband, in the company of Jacob, the man who kidnapped her (Flora). That raises suspicions that Conrad was also involved in the kind of sexual abuse that was Jacob’s obsession.

The chapters alternate among the points of view of D.D., Evie and Flora. The chapters on D.D. are told in the third-person narrative, Evie’s and Flora’s in the first person. This enables Ms. Gardner to build suspense by breaking off each woman’s story just as it gets to a climactic point and switching to the story of one of the other women. I’m not sure, though, that Evie’s and Flora’s voices come through as distinctly different. At times, Flora sounds somewhat erudite; as far as I know there’s no explanation for her having such a sophisticated tone. The thing that bothers me more about this method of story-telling is that we have a person who is telling us her own story – Evie, in this case – but who is hiding some facts from us. This tactic helps to keep a reader on edge but it makes me feel like I’m being jerked around. If we have access to a person’s thoughts in her first-person narrative, then I think we should have access to all her thoughts; she shouldn’t be allowed to tease us by holding some back.

Still, the story-telling is captivating. We get touches of D.D.’s somewhat crusty character, as for instance, in this statement about her not being able to trust any cop named Carol: "Completely unreasonable, but there we are." Enchanting scenes of D.D. with her husband, her frisky young son and their maniacal dog may not have much to do with the on-going investigation but they do help to round out the picture D.D.’s life. Evie’s mother is a fascinating character: relentlessly self-centred and yet capable of showing in her manipulative way a certain amount of wisdom and practicality. Evie herself once makes this self-deprecating remark: "I want to hate this man. How dare he be nice to me now."

I’m finding that in Gardner books we’re always treated to meticulous research on some subjects. In this book, one of the things that is explained in some detail is how the effect of gunshots on a body can reveal whether or not the gun was fired by the deceased or by someone else. Details about computer machinations, methods of accessing the Dark Web, and tactics for wiping computers are given at great length – a little too much for my taste.

This book didn’t strike me as being quite as good as the other two Gardner’s that I’ve read, however. I think that’s partly because the switching among the three different points of view tends to string the story out somewhat beyond its merits; if the story were told from one point of view, it could be told much more succinctly. The different points of view, then, act as a kind of padding. Also, I found the delving into crimes from some years earlier rather too complicated and laborious. Connecting the threads running through these stories takes quite a bit of concentration.

Another thing that bothered me was the constant emphasis on the status of Evie’s deceased father as a genius. Everybody is constantly talking about how far above the run of ordinary humanity he was in terms of intelligence. Does anybody actually view anybody else this way in real life? It struck me as a form of fictional exaggeration for effect without much connection to reality.

Occasional small flaws turn up, as in D.D.’s knowing somebody is lying because of "a flicker in his gaze." My understanding is that this kind of "tell" – so beloved of mystery writers – has been de-bunked by psychologists and behavioural studies. In what is probably just an editing glitch we get the statement "I don’t know anyone to talk to Conrad about." Since Conrad is long since dead, I think the statement is probably meant to read "I don’t know anyone to talk to about Conrad." After a conversation with someone, Evie has the thought that the other person may have been reacting to her (Evie’s) "washed-out, shell-shocked features." Is the author forgetting that we’re dealing here with Evie’s first-person narrative? How could Evie know that she looks washed-out" and "shell-shocked" if she isn’t looking in a mirror. (She isn’t.)

About two-thirds of the way through, I happened to spot the likely mastermind behind all the treachery in this story. That doesn’t often happen, as I’m not particularly gifted with that kind of perspicacity. However, that doesn’t mean that I won’t gladly try more Gardner books. They’re highly enjoyable, no matter what their flaws.

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