Dilettante's Diary
MARCH 12, 2020
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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: Knives Out (Movie); Agrippina (Opera); Downton Abbey (Movie); The Marriage of Figaro (Opera); Man Made (Memoir); Normal People (Novel); We Are the Weather (Science); The Night Fire (Mystery); Blue Moon (Mystery)

Knives Out (Movie) written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Lanford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindholme

We open with what looks like an Agatha Christie situation. Dear old Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a fabulously rich American mystery writer, is found dead in his study after his eighty-fifth birthday party. The cops see it as suicide. But, wouldn’t you know, several of the family members gathered for the festivities appear to have had plenty of motive for off-ing the old guy. Strangest of all, someone has anonymously sent a bundle of cash to Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator, imploring him to find the murderer.

Not long into the movie, we begin to understand what happened – or we think we do – and it becomes only a matter of waiting until the cops and/or the detective clue in. Entertaining enough, trying to see how they pick up the clues. But wait, don’t feel so smug. Maybe things didn’t go down the way you think they did. Sit back and watch. Lots of twists and turns and clever surprises are in store.

So it’s sort of a classic murder mystery and it sort of isn’t. There’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality to the broad acting. Most notably in the case of Daniel Craig, who plays Benoit Blanc. Here, Mr. Craig is about twenty pounds heavier than in his James Bond persona. His face is fat and round and, for some reason, he’s busting a courtly, southern gentleman’s way of speaking. Somebody even makes some disparaging crack about his phony Kentucky fried chicken accent. (That’s the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the movie). It’s as if everybody’s acknowledging that this is a lot of play-acting. Nobody seems to be enjoying it more than Mr. Craig himself. He seems to be winking at us: this is pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? The reason for the accent? I can only assume that, given the  US setting, they didn’t want him to have his natural British sound and they found it wouldn’t be plausible for him to try to sound like a middle-of-the-road American. Solution to the problem: give him a wacky, distinctive accent that will cover the traces.

Although all the acting in the movie is top quality, it all hangs on the believability of Marta, who is the nurse who had been hired to look after Harlan’s medical needs. The family members profess to be tremendously grateful to her, they keep telling her that they consider her one of the family but, if you listen closely, you’ll see that they can’t seem to remember accurately where she’s from: Uruguay? Paraguay? Brazil? With grace and forbearance, Marta puts up with all the condescension as she becomes central to the investigation and Ana de Armas, in the role, bears the brunt of the attention with remarkable aplomb and sincerity.

So we have an entertaining fireside story here. Lots to keep us guessing as to what’s going on. Does it offer anything in a more thoughtful way? Any insight into human affairs? Well, yes, I’d say so. The way the family members react as their unified front begins to unravel does reveal some genuine insight into the way people behave. I found a scene where one of the sons (Michael Shannon) confronts Marta in a private moment chillingly truthful in its demonstration of human wiliness.

One other merit of the movie: it shows you what life inside one of those turreted brick mansions would be like. You know the kind of place featured in so many beloved British mysteries: an interior that’s dark, overflowing with knick-knacks and gee-jaws, crowded with over-stuffed furniture. A touch of the tongue-in-cheek flavour comes in here too. One of the relatives claims that this has been the family seat for generations but somebody points out that, no, Harlan bought it fairly recently from a Pakistani real estate agent.

I found the movie a bit long at two hours and ten minutes, but I can’t think of any part of it that could be cut. That tells you something.

 

Agrippina (Opera) by George Friderich Handel; libretto by Vincenzo Grimani; conducted by Harry Bicket; production by Sir David McVicar; designed by John MacFarlane; starring Joyce Di Donato, Brenda Rae, Kate Lindsey, Iestyn Davies, Duncan Rock, Matthew Rose, Nicolas Tamanga, Christian Zaremba; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Met Live in HD Transmission, February 29, 2020.

Something of a landmark this, in many ways, one of them being that this production is the first time the Met has ever staged Agrippina. In her opening remarks, Deborah Voigt, the host of this HD Live transmission, also noted that this is the oldest opera that the Met has ever staged. And yet, George Friderich Handel was only twenty-four when the opera premiered in 1709. That probably means that it’s an opera by a composer who was younger when he composed it than any other composers were (except perhaps Mozart) when they wrote an opera in the Met’s repretoire.

Agrippina (Joyce Di Donato) was the mother of the notorious Roman Emperor, Nero (known here as "Nerone"). You might say he was following in his mother’s footsteps, as Agrippina herself wasn’t exactly a model of propriety. (Well, what can you expect with a name like that!) The opera opens with the announcement that Claudio (Matthew Rose), the emperor and husband of Agrippina, has been drowned in a storm at sea. Great! Agrippina seizes the opportunity to get her teenage son, Nerone (Kate Lindsey), crowned emperor. She calls in two courtiers (Duncan Rock and Nicolas Tamanga) and persuades them to go out in public and call for Nerone’s coronation. Their reward? Each man will become her lover and rule, effectively, along with her. But it turns out that Claudio didn’t drown at sea. He was rescued by Ottone (Iestyn Davies). By way of reward, Claudio promises Ottone any woman he wants for his wife. Ottone wants the beautiful young Poppea (Brenda Rae). Only problem: Claudio wants her too.

That’s just the beginning of the complications which spin on and on, becoming ever more twisted and convoluted. Handel’s music, is of course, sublime and it was delivered here with the perfection that it deserved. The main concern in this production, then, is the design. Ms. Voigt mentioned in her opening remarks that it’s staged in a mausoleum. That left me puzzled for most of the show. Not much sign of a mausoleum as far as I could see. The gloomy set consisted of stony pillars that were shoved back and forth. The one bright spot was a soaring golden staircase, about twenty-five steps high, with a golden throne perched on stop. It was wheeled in and shunted around from time to time – just in case there was ever any chance of our forgetting what this was all about.

The apparel was all contemporary and absolutely up to date. Business suits on most of the men, black cocktail dresses or slinky gowns for the women. Nerone (Kate Lindsey in a trouser role) struck the most vivid 21st century note: a skinny, bug-eyed youth, with spiky hair, covered with tattoos. No problem with any of that, as far as I was concerned. But what was with those soldiers gyrating and gesticulating behind Agrippina as though they were auditioning for rock videos? And why the jerky, spasmodic movement from Nerone?

It wasn’t until the second scene that I began to catch on: this was all meant as satire. Now we had Nerone appearing in public, making a show of charity to the poor. Standing on a pedestal, he was surrounded by pathetic-looking street people while he patronizingly handed them wrapped packages of what we assumed were food. But he had ostentatiously put on plastic gloves before consorting with these unwashed masses. And, lo and behold, there was a tv crew filming this demonstration of his munificence; on a screen at the side of the stage we were actually seeing a video projection of the news item, hosted by a glossy media woman.

The next touch that I really liked came in Poppea’s dressing room. A retinue of hangers-on was helping her chose her adornments and, most prominent among her advisers were two obviously gay men who fawned over her adoringly. Most of her narcissistic emoting was addressed intimately to them. Then, in another brilliant staging, she was in street clothes, trying to flag down a taxi, while the bustle of a city at night flashed by in the videos behind her.

Ottone's jubliant aria, when he hears that Claudio has chosen him to be next emperor, is accompanied by six soldiers whirling around in outreagously campy choreography. I’m like: okay, we’re in Gilbert and Sullivan territory now.

The modernization of the story reached its zenith in the pub where Ottone is pitching woo to Poppea. When he says he sees her beauty asleep among the flowers, she has actually passed out dead drunk on the bar behind a vase of lilies. There’s even a sequence of something like karaoke to the accompaniment of a harpsichord played spectacularly on stage. To my disappointment, the excellent harpsichordist wasn’t credited in the program. [Later: I have since learned that he was Harry Bicket, the conductor.]  

So, yes, I did eventually buy into the concept of the production. It was fun to watch. But I didn’t feel that it made much of a point in terms of satire. Deborah Voigt, in her introduction, had made a sly remark to the effect that the opera shows something we all know too well: the lengths some people will go to in order to hang on to power. But I didn’t feel the opera gave any insight into world affairs today. Maybe that’s because the acting was so broad, with the result that what we got was more farce than satire. As Agrippina, Joyce Di Donato stomped around with exaggerated hip swaying, lots of eye rolling and mugging. Brenda Rae’s over-acting was even worse. As a drunk, she flopped around like a rag doll. Admittedly, some of the hamming may have been excusable, given that the actors were playing to an audience of about three thousand at the Met; perhaps it’s inevitable that such performances will look exaggerated in close-ups on screen. As for Nerone’s weird antics, I did eventually catch on that he was a hopped up druggie. In fact, the scene where he goes nuts in clouds of cocaine was one of the comic highlights of the show.

In terms of the production’s quieter pleasures, the love duet between Ottone and Poppea was so gorgeous that my only complaint is that it was too brief. And, to give Ms. Di Donato credit, she achieved great depth and feeling in the somber aria where she dropped all the joking and confessed that her thoughts were tormenting her. But there was only one moment in the show that felt real to me – where I felt stirred and empathetic at seeing a real human being in pain – and that was near the end, where Claudio is trying to digest Aggripina's complicated (and not entirely candid) explanation for all the turmoil. The expression on his face was the blank, far-away look of a middle-aged man who doesn’t know whether he can trust anybody, whether anything he thought was true, whether his life has been a complete charade.

The mausoleum idea did pay off in the end. Tombs were rolled out and each character climbed on top of his or her tomb and lay down while a young man who had been Claudio’s attendant (sung by Christian Zaremba) sat down in front of them, reading a book and laughing his head off – as if to say that these fools who lived so long ago weren’t much different from any of the human beings who have come along since.

 

Downton Abbey (Movie) written by Julian Fellowes; directed by Michael Engler; starring: all the usual group and a few new members.

So Downton Abbey has come at last to the big screen. (Well, not that recently; we’re catching up here on movies that most people saw last year.) It’s mostly the same crew from the tv series, with a few new faces, the same stunning palace, the luscious green lawns and all that. The main gist of the story for this film version is that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to spend a night at Downton, as a whistle stop, so to speak, on a tour of the county. Given that this is a two-hour immersion in the affairs of Downton, there’s room for an almost limitless number of subplots and side issues. All quite acceptable in the grand soap opera tradition. (But a royal dressmaker who has a penchant for filching valuables? Gimme a break!)

The crux of the drama is that the Downton household staff don’t take kindly to being pushed aside by the royal retainers. This might not be much of an issue except for the fact that the king’s head servant is an egregiously obnoxious twit. If he weren’t so awful, there wouldn’t be much conflict in the air. So his ghastly character is a necessary theatrical device. But would the king really employ such a jerk?

Nice as it was to loll in the posh atmosphere, for the first hour, I was thinking: isn’t this all rather trite and pass? Haven’t we had enough of this snobbery and upper-class elitism? I also found myself thinking: this isn’t real, people don’t live this way. I’m not talking about the luxury, the glamour and the pomposity. I’m talking about the dialogue. In real life, people don’t constantly come back with the perfect riposte to every jibe; not every scene in real life ends with a resounding curtain line. The artificiality of it all was cloying. Also, it wasn’t easy for someone who hadn’t seen a lot of the tv installments, to keep track of the characters: too many good-looking young men with their dark hair perfectly groomed; too many pretty young women with wavy blonde hair.

Gradually, as the story plunged more deeply into the personal problems of some of the characters, the movie became more engaging. Some moments were quite touching. One of the best lines came from Queen Mary at an awkward moment: "We are accustomed to people behaving strangely when we are around." [not an exact quote] Even if matters did end with every loose string tied up, every conflict humanely resolved, I had the feeling of having enjoyed a good show, no matter how phony it seemed at times.

Oh yeah, one non-phony pleasure: it was good to see that the actors – and the characters they were playing – were aging in a natural way, like the rest of us.

 

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; starring Adam Plechette, Hanna-Elisabeth Mller, Amanda Woodbury, tienne Dupuis and Marianne Crebassa. Conducted by Cornelius Meister; the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera," CBC Radio Two; Saturday, February 22, 2020.

Just two things to say about this production of my beloved Figaro.

First: The overture under conductor Cornelius Meister was the zippiest rendition of it I’ve ever heard. It nearly went into orbit. You wondered how the musicians could keep up the pace. This overture was definitely warning us that a rollicking comedy was in store.

Second: Although all the singing was fine, Marianne Crebasse sang one of the best Cherubino’s I have ever heard. Her voice was high, bright, clear, absolutely steady and unfaltering – so thrilling that her two short arias brought tears to my eyes. Of course, the Met audience didn’t give her the ovation she deserved. It seems that opera audiences come to yell about electrifying climaxes, not about perfect, flawless little gems.

 

Man Made (Memoir) by Joel Stein, 2012

Joel Stein isn’t exactly an unknown in the media world. He had a column in Time for two decades. He has written for The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire and Playboy. But my first impression of him – in so far as I can remember – was a recent interview on CBC Radio about his new book In Defense of Elitism. He told the interviewer, Matt Galloway, that the reason he champions elitism is that he believes in giving important jobs to experts. Not a bad policy, if you ask me. At the end of the interview, Matt Galloway mentioned something about the humour in the book and Mr. Stein said something to the effect of: yeah, there’s so much anger on the subject that I tried to make the book funny.

Sounded to me like a guy worth looking up. The internet told me that one of his previous books was Man Made, its subtitle being: "A Stupid Quest for Masculinity." That’s a subject of great interest to me in today’s world where questions of gender roles loom so large.

The book turned out not to be the serious sociological study that I was expecting. (That adjective in the subtitle should have tipped me off.) It’s more of a comical romp through the author’s attempts to become more manly as a result of finding out that he and his wife are expecting a baby boy. Judging himself too much of a wuss to be a good role model for a son, Mr. Stein puts himself through a rigorous program of "manning-up" that includes stints as a boy scout, a fireman, a Wall Street financial whiz, a hunter and the like. To learn some handyman skills, he signs on for some house renovations with his father-in-law. He endures some boot camp training with both the marines and the army. He gets some baseball coaching from no less an expert than Shawn Green, the major league all-star, and he submits to a tussle with UFC star Randy Couture.

It quickly becomes apparent that the main feature of Mr. Stein’s writing is the jokes. There are so many of them that he surely won’t mind my giving a few favourites here:

  • "It is becoming very difficult to meet someone in Los Angeles who has not had a reality show."
  • nursing a sore arm after a day of hammering on a roof: "Despite years of my insistence to the contrary, it seems that masturbation really isn’t great exercise."
  • about finally landing a punch on Randy Couture’s face: "Which, luckily, does not seem to make him angry. Most likely because he doesn’t notice."
  • on learning that his swimming skills meet those expected of an officer in the military: "We really should stop invading other countries."
  • about his mother’s objections to his UFC gig: "It is hard to listen to the warnings of someone who doesn’t like fighting because it doesn’t foster creativity."
  • about his writing process: "...maybe twirling your hair while trying to think of a witticism to end your paragraph isn’t all that manly."

That last quip is an example of what might be called tearing down the fourth wall (as in theatre). Mr. Stein now and then steps aside from the role of the omnipotent author and lets us see how he’s struggling with the writing; he lets the mask slip, so to speak. More than once, he’ll acknowledge that he’s sitting there trying to make lame or dumb jokes. In spite of the self-deprecation – or maybe because of it – his efforts in that department prove to be quite successful, in my opinion.

Quite apart from the jokes – most of them excellent – I did notice another amusing technique of Mr. Stein’s. You might call it a rhetorical device for humorous emphasis. He ends a sentence with a word or a phrase from the first part of the sentence or from a previous sentence in such a way that almost – but not quite – amounts to tautology. Just a few examples:

  • "Standing on the roof, I look back fondly on my earlier, carefree not-standing-on-a-roof years."
  • "I do not like carrying a gun. Especially when it has a bullet in it. It feels scary, like a loaded gun."
  • "Matt offers me a chocolate Slim-Fast, which I decline, mostly because it is a chocolate Slim-Fast."
  • "I try to go to sleep at 1830, which does not work due to the fact that it is 1830."

In some of Mr. Stein’s adventures, there is, undeniably, an element of role playing. Take boot camp training. Both he and the instructors know that he’s not a real recruit. They know that he’s a distinguished journalist who’s pretending to be a recruit for the sake of seeing what he can learn about the experience. Same with the UFC episode and the Wall Street escapade. That may be why one of the chapters I enjoyed most was the one about looking after a dog. Confronting his elemental fear of canines, Mr. Stein decided that he had to learn what it was like to live with a dog in the house. After lengthy conferral with dog adoption agencies, he borrowed a dog named Montana to live with him and his wife and their baby boy for two weeks.

No role playing there on anybody’s part. After admitting his fear of dogs for the obvious reasons – because they bite, for instance – he moves on to a problem that’s troubling in another way: "Dogs don’t wipe. People focus on opposable thumbs, talking, and using tools as the main differences between humans and animals, but I’m going with wiping." And now he’s going to have an animal sitting on his furniture? "This is why you should not have animals in your house."

However, the co-habitation with Montana goes splendidly, even though Mr. Stein has to cook certain foods for her. He begins to enjoy the walks with her and he imagines that when she barks at other dogs, she’s saying "This guy? Oh, he’s just my personal chef. I know it’s weird, but for some reason he’s collecting all my poop." Mr. Stein does admit to a certain awkwardness about etiquette among dog owners: what are you supposed to do when your dogs are smelling each other’s butts? Are you supposed to pretend you don’t notice?

Best of all, he finds that life with a dog in the house is quieter than ever. "I thought having a dog and a kid would be slobber and barking and running back and forth. But it’s calming. I feel something that’s not just the absence of loneliness but something more tangible. Like anti-loneliness." He used to think that his family "were just people who signed on to join my adventures." Sitting at home of an evening, with the dog on her pillow and his son playing with toys, he now has the startling epiphany that "this is my life."

As that scenario implies, Man Made isn’t all about jokes and satire. Mr. Stein does come to some genuine insights about the masculinity. Some of them challenge the very idea of it. In that respect, some of the men you’d expect to be most "manly" – i.e. macho, tough, ambitious, aggressive – turn out not to be like that at all. Shawn Green, the baseball star, is mild-mannered, the epitome of politeness, a man who’s into Buddhism and meditation, who knows nothing about football. Randy Couture, the UFC he-man, writes poetry and paints, and he doesn’t like watching sports.

Even more surprising are Mr. Stein’s impressions of several of the men in the military whom he came to know as idealistic and patriotic – in the best senses of those words. He honours the evidence of the young men who tell him that the military gave them discipline and maturity. In an odd way, Mr. Stein wishes he could be more like them. Sharing a tent with Captain Michael Fritz during his boot camp experience, Mr. Stein has these thoughts:

He’s calm, happy, curious, brave, has a great attitude, isn’t judgmental, and enjoys life; he’s exactly the kind of guy you want to be stuck with in a war. He doesn’t have just that Buddhist contentment with wherever he is, but a drive to enjoy his situation no matter what it is. Not much, I think, can get Captain Fritz down. He wears his manliness lightly. It’s how I’d like to be.

Before writing the book, Mr. Stein says, he thought it would end by saying that real manliness was about making sacrifices, being faithful, taking care of others. But he believes now that some of that macho stuff that he went through does make him feel more confident in a manly way. I don’t know whether that will reassure the people who are so agitated about "toxic masculinity" in our society, but I’m willing to grant Mr. Stein’s claim that the kind of manliness he encountered – and absorbed, to some extent – can be a good thing.

 

Normal People (Novel) by Sally Rooney, 2018

I haven’t read much of Sally Rooney's work, other than one short story in the New Yorker, and it was a stunning representation of the mind of a young man today. Meanwhile, I’ve heard people saying – on the basis of this novel – that Ms. Rooney is one of the best up-and-coming writers of her generation.

With good reason.

Normal People, the story of Marianne and Connell, two young residents of a town near Sligo, Ireland, takes us into their wishes, their hopes, their hurts and their whims, in a way that’s achingly believable and convincing. In its quiet way, this lovely book bears reading over and over, simply for the pleasure of knowing these two and enjoying their company. Their relationship is sketched with infinite nuance and delicay; we get a sense of the broad range of human complexity in each of their characters.

Connell and Marianne are an odd pair. And they know it. The word "weird" is used more than once to describe how they feel about themselves. In fact, with reference to the title of the novel, much of the book amounts to their trying to figure out whether or not they’re "normal people." From the outset, it’s clear that they have strong feelings for each other but their connection doesn’t seem to be the kind of romance that most teenagers imagine. It’s deeper and more puzzling. In fact, it’s so deep that at times their relationship makes me think of Catherine and Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights. It’s only with each other that Connell and Marianne can feel like their true selves; it’s only with each other that they can be relaxed and completely candid.

To a reader, that would seem to indicate that they’re meant for each other. But it’s not easy for Marianne and Connell to see that. Their relationship is constantly troubled by doubts and misunderstandings. Not least of the problems is that their disparate social standings require some discretion in their affair. Connell’s mother works as a cleaning lady for Marianne’s family, who live in a posh mansion. That makes for a certain amount of taunting from peers who know something about the relationship.

On the private level, part of the trouble is that Connell can be vague and indefinite in his comments. In a particularly male teenage way, he has a tendency to slough things off, to not give clear answers to pointed questions; he also has an inclination to misread things, to misunderstand social signals, again in a masculinely obtuse way. Being a good athlete, he’s well-liked by his peers but that doesn’t mean much to him:

If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced. Now he has a sense of invisibility, nothingness, with no reputation to recommend him to anyone.

After spontaneously telling Marianne that he loves her, he has this thought: "Was it true? He didn’t know enough to know that. At first he thought it must have been true, since he said it, and why would he lie? But then he remembered he does lie sometimes, without planning to or knowing why."

Connell’s thoughtful but tentative. On trying to decide whether or not to have sex at one point, he wonders: "What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all." What should he do or not do? "Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example."

Marianne is the more dramatic, more decisive of the two; she has the stronger feelings and knows what they are but she’s not much inclined to reveal her inner life to others. For the most part, her feelings are covered with a veneer of diffidence and unconcern. She doesn’t curry favour. Her mother believes Marianne has a frigid, unlovable personality because she lacks what her mother calls "warmth," by which she means "the ability to beg for love from people who hate her." Connell has this thought about Marianne: "She did not altogether, a far as Connell knew, actually like herself, but praise from other people seemed as irrelevant to her as disapproval....."

Most of the time, with their swearing and their slang, their familiarity with pop culture, the young people here sound like the ones we all know in North America but, occasionally, you get a wisp of Irish brogue that reminds you that there’s something different about these two. A few examples: "Helen Brophy, I don’t know would you know her." Then: "Don’t be talking about her like that." And: "I don’t know does she even have a job."

And any review of this book would be incomplete without pointing to at least a few instances of the fine writing:

- After Connell has sex with someone, Ms Rooney tells us: "He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill."

- There’s not much description in the book, but when Ms. Rooney delves into that mode, she does it beautifully:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea of color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic.

Social commentary isn’t the main point of the book, but Ms. Rooney makes some striking observations in that vein. When Connell attends a literary reading at college, for example, he’s struck by the phoniness of the occasion: "It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about."

One small problem with the writing: at risk of seeming a trifle obsessive/compulsive, I noted nearly fifty references to laughter within about 170 pages. We all know that young people laugh a lot – thank goodness! – but when laughter is mentioned so often, it begins to seem less than meaningful and more like an automatic impulse on the part of the writer. Nothing else to say about this scene? Oh well, I’ll throw in some laughter. Perhaps the references would be more effective if they were saved for instances where the laughter could be described as having some particular character or some effect on the proceedings.

Among other notable characters, there’s Connell’s mother. She was an unmarried teen when she gave birth to Connell and has remained a single mom; he’s her only child. Given her relative youthfulness, their relationship has a casual friendliness that you don’t often find between a mother and her child, but she’s also one of the wisest and most truthful characters in the book; that makes for some searing arguments between her and Connell. Strangely, some of Connell’s and Marianne’s cohorts don’t come across very strongly as distinct characters, except that one of the girls (Peggy) appears to be loud and another (Joanna) appears to be more thoughtful. The one character I had a problem with was Marianne’s brother, Alan; he’s an odious twerp who seems to have some grudge against the world, but I couldn’t see why.

The book takes Marianne and Connell from high school to Trinity College in Dublin, and into the world beyond that. Dark times come for both of them. (His less understandable than hers, I’d say.) They have separations, parternships with other people, separations from those people, and meetings again with each other. Ms. Rooney ends the story on a note that sums up the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the hope that characterize life as we know it.

 

We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (Science) by Jonathan Safran Foer, 2019

The highly esteemed American novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer, has lately has taken up the writing campaign of an environmental activist. Even if you don’t think much of his fiction (I do; Here I Am is one of the best novels I’ve read in years), you need to pay attention to his environmental message.

It comes in two threads in this book: 1) it’s high time we stopped discussing and philosophizing about climate change and actually did something; 2) the best thing each one of us can do, individually, is stop eating animals products, given that animal agriculture contributes so much to greenhouse gases.

One of the most obvious and immediate assets of the book is that its chapters are very short. You feel you’re making progress quickly (unlike reparations required by climate change). The writing is succinct and to the point, not wordy.

On the point of doing something, instead of just speculating – Mr. Foer refers repeatedly to his Jewish grandmother’s action. As a young woman, she fled her village in Poland in the 1930s, sensing that something terrible was developing. The rest of her family members stayed, hoping for the best; they all perished in the Holocaust. As Mr. Foer sees it, we need to be like his grandmother; we need to take drastic action in the face of the oncoming peril.

Another historical character who crops up often is Jan Karski, a Catholic in the Polish underground in the Second World War. In 1942, he set out to warn world leaders what was happening in Nazi-occupied Poland. In Washington, he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurther, one of the great legal minds in American history, and himself a Jew. After hearing Karski, Frankfurter said he couldn’t believe what Karski was saying. He didn’t claim that Karaksi was lying, just that he was unable to believe him: "My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it."

As for that difference between knowing and believing, Mr. Foer explains that our brains evolved to process immediate threats very well but not long-range ones. We pay attention to immediate and local needs "while remaining indifferent to what is lethal but over there." As he puts it: "We may not think the scientists are lying, but are we able to believe what they tell us?" If we did believe, such a belief "would surely awaken us to the urgent ethical imperative attached to it, shake our collective conscience, and render us willing to make small sacrifices in the present to avoid cataclysmic ones in the future." Instead, we tend to view climate change "as a dramatic, apocalyptic event occurring in the future (rather than a variable, incremental process occurring over time), and to paint the fossil fuel industry as the embodiment of destruction (rather than one of several forces that require our attention)."

An important point in Mr. Foer's treatise is the difference between feelings and action. Sometimes, strong enough feeling can propel extraordinary action. In 2006, it was a surge of emotion that enabled Thomas Boyle, Jr. to lift a car off 18-year-old Kyle Holtrust, who was trapped under it, having been dragged by the car for thirty feet. Afterwards, Mr. Boyle said: "All I could think is, what if that was my son?" He didn’t stop to ponder alternatives and various approaches. He wouldn’t likely have been able to accomplish that Herculean feat if he hadn’t had such a strong surge of emotion. It was a Chevy Camaro weighing between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds and he held it aloft for forty-five seconds while Kyle Holtrust was pulled free. The world record for dead lift is 1,102 pounds.

On the other hand, feeling may not be enough. Lots of things – opting for a hybrid car, for instance – don’t accomplish much more than making us feel better. (In the case of hybrid cars, studies have shown that decreases in tailpipe emissions are largely offset by the increased electricity generation needed to charge batteries.) "Too often, the feeling of making a difference doesn’t correspond to the difference made – worse, an inflated sense of accomplishment can relieve the burden of doing what actually needs to be done."

But small actions that do make a difference add up. This requires what Mr. Foer refers to as "scaffolding," i.e. the structures that encourage certain kinds of action in a society. For example, people celebrate Thanksgiving because it’s a national holiday. "The collective action occurs because the structure encourages it – our amorphous, un-urgent emotions about Thanksgiving need a scaffolding." And societal change occurs on a feedback loop: "Social change, much like climate change, is caused by multiple chain reactions that occur simultaneously. Both cause, and are caused by, feedback loops." When a radical change is needed, many argue that it is impossible for individual actions to incite it, so it’s futile for anyone to try. "This is exactly the opposite of the truth: the impotence of individual action is a reason for everyone to try." He grants that it may be a neo-liberal myth that individual decisions have ultimate power, but "it is a defeatist myth that individual decisions have no power at all. Both macro and micro actions have power, and when it comes to mitigating our planetary destruction, it is unethical to dismiss either, or to proclaim that because the large cannot be achieved, the small should not be attempted."

Mr. Foer isn’t so angry about climate-change-deniers as he is about the acceptance that, effectively, amounts to denial. "Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger." Only 14 percent of Americans deny climate change – significantly fewer than those who deny evolution or that the earth orbits the sun. "We dramatically overstate the role of science deniers, because it allows science acceptors to feel righteous without challenging us to act on the knowledge we accept."

On his key proposal – the reduction of animal products in our diets – Mr. Foer strikes a reasonable note. What is the opposite of someone who eats a lot of meat, dairy and eggs? A vegan? No. It’s someone who is attentive to how often he or she eats animal products. "The best way to excuse oneself from a challenging idea is to pretend there are only two options."

Animal agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, says Mr. Foer, is estimated at 18 percent or 51 percent. A six-page appendix lays out the reasons for these percentages. The lower figure comes from a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. The higher figure is given in a 2009 study by the Worldwatch Institute. In 2014 both the UN General Assembly and UNESCO accepted the higher figure. Mr. Foer thinks neither figure is quite accurate but he finds the higher one more persuasive for several reasons, one of them being that it takes into account things like deforestation and forest-burning which cause less absorption of greenhouse gases by photosynthesis.

The book is enfused with lots of warmth that helps to introduce a human element into the somewhat stark science and softens the Jeremiad tone of the theme. Mr. Foer’s roles as a dad and a grandson often come to the fore. He frequently refers to his sons, even sometimes addressing them directly. He also tells us that he’s doing a lot of his writing of this book on his laptop while sitting by his grandmother’s deathbed. He admits his guilt and shame about eating meat – often at airports – when he was promoting his book Eating Animals which made the case that factory-farmed meat should not be eaten. Now, he can’t imagine eating meat in the future but he can’t imagine not wanting to eat it. "Eating consciously will be one of the struggles that span and define my life." He sees the struggle not as an expression of any uncertainty about the right way to eat, but as a result of the fact that eating is a complex function. "We eat to satisfy primitive cravings, to forge and express ourselves, to realize community. We eat with our mouths and stomachs, but also with our minds and hearts."

What may be the most personal chapter – "Dispute With the Soul" – is a longer one, (thirty-five pages). It’s a dialogue in which he argues with his conscience, his alter-ego or whatever, examining his hypocrisy, narcissism, conceit, and his shortcomings, in terms of how they play into the theme he’s promulgating. I found it hard to follow the twists and turns of the debate. The personae of the two different characters didn’t come through clearly. Who is on which side? Maybe he’s showing that it gets complicated, the waters easily get muddied, if you’re honest with yourself.

In the end, says Mr. Foer, what will matter to our grandchildren is not whether we cared or whether we were adaptable and prudent. What will matter to them is whether we did what was necessary. "The future does not depend on our feelings, and to a great extent, it depends on us getting over our feelings."

We are killing ourselves because choosing death is more convenient than choosing life...[my ellipsis]...Because we believe that someday, somewhere, some genius is bound to invent a miracle technology that will change our world so that we don’t have to change our lives. Because short-term pleasure is more seductive than long-term survival. Because no one wants to exercise their capacity for intentional behavior until someone else does.

 

The Night Fire (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2019

Here, Michael Connelly’s three stars appear in one book. First, we have our old favourite, Harry Bosch. Next comes Harry’s half-brother, Mickey Haller, best known as the "Lincoln Lawyer." Joining them is Rene Ballard, the female cop who’s a more recent addition to Mr. Connelly’s oeuvre.

Bosch and Ballard have taken on the case of a young man who has been burned to death in his tent at a homeless people’s encampment. The cause of the fire would apparently be a malfunctioning heater that tipped over, but investigation reveals that the heater was functioning properly. Haller, meanwhile, is defending a young schizophrenic man who is accused of spontaneously murdering a judge in a park near the court house; the cops have not only DNA evidence and a confession from the accused, but Bosch sees other possibilities. He and Ballard are also looking into the unsolved murder, several years ago, of a young man who was shot to death in an alley controlled by drug dealers.

What a pleasure to report that Mr. Connelly is still producing excellent murder mysteries that read beautifully. There’s nothing hugely exciting here. Granted, some action scenes do build a certain amount of suspense, but the main thing is the curiosity factor that keeps you reading along steadily, confident that you’re in the hands of a superb story-teller.

The case involving Mickey Haller, although it’s settled fairly quickly, gives us several pages of Haller in court – which is Mr. Connelly’s writing at its best. Haller’s up to his old tricks. We see him "busying himself with paperwork and files to make it appear he was prepping for the day of court." And he lets a witness’s dramatic statement "hang in the air for a few moments while he pretended to check the notes on his legal pad." And, once again, someone makes an amusing reference to Haller as "the one they made the movie about." (It starred Mathew McConaughey.)

Lots of nuances of Bosch’s character come to the fore. To begin with, we learn now that he’s nearly seventy years old. That comes as a sort of reality check. I like the fact that he notes that DNA is often looked on as a panacea for solving crimes but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Not having official cop status now, he’s not above certain kinds of subterfuge pertaining to questions of badges and authority. A scene with his daughter, Maddy, where he has to give her some worrying information, plays as a touching encounter between dad and daughter. He can’t help a wry thought about the fact that she insists on paying for their lunch with her credit card, even though the credit card bill comes to him. And this thought about the supposed "loose ends" in every case strikes an authentic note: "They stuck with him, clinging to him as he moved on, sometimes waking him up in the night. But they were never loose and he could never get free of them."

Sometimes you get some interesting information of a technical kind in a mystery. One example in this book is the detail about the different ways in which a body can land on the pavement, depending on whether somebody jumps from the roof or is pushed.

Are there no quibbles about this work? No flaws at all?

Well, a few. A lot depends here on a young person’s ability to draw portraits that lead to someone’s being identified years later; I find that somewhat implausible. By way of a kind of sidebar, Ballard investigates a van stopped at the side of a road and finds four Mexican women who are being trafficked for sex slavery. The incident doesn’t have anything to do with the main stories in the book but I suppose it’s a healthy reminder, from a social justice point of view, about what’s going on out there. One final quibble: the cops, in their communications with each other, say "Roger that" far too often; it may be a common practice but the frequent repetition of a clich like that becomes tiresome for a reader.

The mention of communication among the cops, in fact, raises what is my major reservation about the book. The animosity and vituperation among the cops towards one of their peers who, they feel, has undermined them, seems vastly exaggerated. I can understand surliness and resentment, jibes and sniping, but these guys explode with hatred when thwarted by another cop. Would actual adults act this way? They seem childish to me.

 

Blue Moon (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2019

We start with Jack Reacher on a bus, heading for an unnamed, mid-sized American town. Reacher happens to notice an older man dozing across the aisle. A thick bank envelope in the man’s pocket is apparently loaded with cash. Reacher also notices a young punk who has his eye on the envelope. Once the bus stops, Reacher steps in to prevent the older man from being mugged by the punk. It transpires that the older man’s cash is intended as repayment to some loan sharks. (He needed the loan because of a dire family emergency.) Reacher’s inclination to help resolve the old man’s trouble brings him into a battle between two gangs, the Ukrainians and the Albanians, who control the two sides of the unnamed city. Thus, the novel takes off.

Many of Reacher's characteristics are on display here. Frequent reference is made to the survival instincts that helped to shape the human brain back in evolutionary times. I find that a convincing way of conveying Reacher’s smarts. Reacher still has that extraordinary ability in a physical crisis to a calculate the odds very quickly in terms of speeds, weights, timing and so on. The question of Reacher’s looks – other than his size – comes up frequently. Is he ugly or just rugged? In fact, the word ‘ugly’ has important plot implications. It surprised me, though, to find that people are describing him as someone who’s about sixty-five years old. Any reader who has been following Reacher’s career closely since the inception of the series could probably surmise that he’d be around that age. But he seems as vigorous and brawny as ever; no hesitation at all at bashing people’s heads together. Believable about a sixty-five-year-old? I do like, though, the fact that some of Reacher’s limitations are realistically upheld. For instance, his clumsiness when any gymnastic maneuvers are required. His answer when asked why he isn’t married: "The decision is only fifty percent mine."

A thought Reacher has voiced before comes up: "The best fights are the ones you don’t have." Discussing strategy, he says: "I’m pretty much a whatever works kind of guy." Is he cruel, hard-hearted? Not exactly. When asked whether he’s going to check to see if a guy he’s just attacked is still alive in the trunk of the car, he says: "I don’t see how his welfare suddenly becomes my responsibility, just because he chose to attack my welfare first. I’m not clear how that works exactly." One Reacher quote from another book is repeated. When one of the bad guys blubbers about family matters that should earn him a reprieve, Reacher says: "You must be confusing me with someone who gives a shit." Much as I love that line, when a writer falls back on a gem used previously, it makes you wonder if the cupboard is getting bare.

In this adventure, Reacher teams up with a pretty waitress, about half his age, whose intelligence and intuition help a great deal in his pursuit of fair dealing. Through her, he also meets a couple of ready and willing guys, one of them a former U.S. Marine. Their expertise comes in handy. So does the skill of a friend of theirs, a guy who was a company commander in the Cold War and who acquired some knowledge of many languages, among them Ukrainian and Albanian. Maybe it’s not quite plausible that anybody could stumble on such helpful dudes purely by accident, but the team so assembled works well for the story.

Social commentary comes in one merchant’s comment about having to pay protection money to the gang that controls his side of the city: "People get used to it. Ultimately they see it as reasonable. Ten percent, like the church used to take, back in the olden days. Like taxes. Nothing to be done about it."

And this on human nature: "Once Reacher had read a paperback book he found on a bus, about how people like to second guess themselves for hours or days, whereas really they know the truth in the blink of an eye. He liked the book because it agreed with him. He had learned to trust his first flash of instinct."

If I have any reservations about the book, one would be that the machinations of the rival gangs, the Albanians and the Ukrainians, can be difficult to track. Their complicated reprisals verge on comedy when they start blaming Reacher’s interventions on each other. (The shooting and the piling up of bodies rise to apocalyptic levels.) The other drawback to the book, as I find it, is that the strategizing by Reacher and his four partners sometimes goes on for several talky pages. Their poring over the layout of streets, the blueprints of buildings and such doesn't make for thrilling reading. However, those lulls are nearly always followed by cataclysmic outbursts of action – and violence.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com