Dilettante's Diary

Aug 12/20

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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: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and 1917 (Movies); A Transparent Woman, Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, White Noise, The Rescue Will Begin In Its Own Time and Jack and Della (Short Fiction); The Body (Science); American Dirt (Novel); Boy Wonders (Memoir); The Hard Way (Thriller); My Dream of You and The Good German (Novels)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Movie) written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster; inspired by the article by Tom Junod; directed by Marielle Heller; starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi-Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkema, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster.

A curmudgeonly journalist is assigned to do a short profile of a beloved host of a long-time children’s tv program. The journalist, begrudgingly, finds that the tv host appears to be the nicest man on earth. The host’s kindness has quite an impact on the journalist’s problems, particularly his grudge against his father.

Even though it’s based on a true story, it’s hard to imagine anything more saccharine and treacly. The kind of thing you should stay away from if you’re not asking to bring on diabetes. Impossible to think how any movie makers could bring this off successfully.

But they do. This story of the friendship that developed between Fred Rogers, the host of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," and Lloyd Vogel, a writer for Esquire magazine, is spell-bindingly life-affirming.

Mind you, I wasn’t sure at first about Tom Hanks in the Fred Rogers role. Can’t say whether or not I’ve ever watched Mr. Rogers’ program but it seemed to me that Mr. Hanks was smiling too much. Maybe Mr. Rogers did smile all that much on camera, but the Tom Hanks version looked a little forced to me. However, Mr. Hanks sold me on the character in one brief exchange. The journalist (Matthew Rhys) asked Fred Rogers about the difference between himself, i.e. his own true character, and the character that he plays on the program. Tom Hanks just looked at the journalist for a long moment, the expression on his face showing something like bewilderment, regret and forgiveness. From that moment on, I knew that we were dealing here with a man who had depth and integrity.

The drama wouldn’t have worked, of course, if you’d had any actor less gifted than Matthew Rhys in the role of the journalist. (Here, he’s called Lloyd Vogel but the real journalist was Tom Junod.) His clipped, hard-edged cynicism, just thinly covered with a veneer of professional politesse, shows that it’s going to take a long time for the Rogers magic to work on him. One of the best scenes has the two men discussing their favourite stuffed toys as kids. You can see Mr. Rhys teetering on the edge between fond memory and resentment until the latter wins and he storms out.

As for the philosophy of Fred Rogers, or the point of his program, indeed of his persona, the character explains that one of his goals is to help children deal with their feelings. We also learn that he wants children to feel accepted and loved just as they are, in their true selves, not as what they are going to become. A reiteration of that theme comes when Mr. Rogers asks Mr. Vogel to spend a minute thinking about all the people who have loved him into being. The silent sixty seconds for this thought process take place while they’re sitting in a crowded restaurant across the table from each other, all the other diners watching them in uncanny stillness.

Which brings us to the subject of the artful making of the movie. At times it branches into fantasy; the jump can be a little tricky to navigate for a viewer but you catch on soon enough. The use of Mr. Rogers’ program as a framing device works well. Mr. Vogel is presented as a guest on the program who’s being introduced to children who are watching. The guest’s role as an Esquire writer is explained by a video showing children how a magazine is put together. The fake neighbourhood sets on the program are sometimes conflated with real city skylines. And the glimpses we have of the taping of the Rogers show offer a bonus for people who love behind-the-scenes showbiz atmosphere.

If you watch through the credits at the end, you’re rewarded with another bonbon: the real Fred Rogers singing one of his signature songs.

 

1917 (Movie) written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Pip Carter, Andy Apollo, Paul Tinto.

Given the title, you can probably guess the context. It’s trench warfare in France and a couple of our guys (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are given the dangerous task of penetrating behind enemy lines to convey a crucial message to one of our battalions The battalion was planning an attack the next day but the enemy knows all about it; it’s going to be a slaughter. So the attack has to be called off. The two messengers have to travel nine miles on foot across enemy terrain and the message must be received in time. (Phone contact has been cut off by the enemy.) In case the two soldiers need any further motivation for forging ahead – apart from the credit to be obtained from obeying orders – one of the guys has a brother in the endangered battalion.

Many viewers consider this a marvellous movie; for some, it’s the best of the past year. Granted, it does convey a rich sense of what that trench warfare was like: the mud, the explosions, the horror, the dirt. And the acting is impeccable. One thing that a lot of people marvel at is the long takes. It often looks as though a scene is running for something like twenty minutes without a break. (I’m told that, although the takes in the filming were long, there are computer-aided ways of stitching several together to make them look like one extremely long take.) I’m not sure whether those seemingly long takes create a stronger impression of reality than you get with shorter takes: Wow, this feels like real life! Or whether they distract you with questions about the process. More of the latter, in my case: How the heck are they accomplishing this? Did the actors learn all these lines, all these moves, in one day???

I don’t want to belittle the movie by saying that those questions were the main interest for me, but it is true that I found the movie less engaging than expected. Fact is, I don’t especially enjoy a movie – or a book – about someone who takes on some impossible goal and who goes through hell to achieve it. That’s pretty much the essence of this movie. You wouldn’t believe some of the torture these guys endure.

Not that it’s all cataclysmic. There are quiet moments of sharing among the soldiers, the inevitable scatological humour, the vigorous cursing, lots of camaraderie. Some actual beauty occurs when they encounter a flowering orchard that’s been chopped up and one of the guys lectures the other one on the different varieties of cherry trees. We get a sentimental touch in a scene where a woman is protecting an infant in the bombed out ruins of a town; this gives one of our heroes a chance to share some of the cow’s milk that he recently procured from an abandoned farm. The soldier’s stroll through the shambles of that town lit by flares at night provides a surrealistic effect, with appropriately resonant music adding to the haunting ambiance.

If heroic exploits in which people conquer insuperable odds are your idea of a great story, then this is the movie for you. I prefer stories about the more ordinary, commonplace challenges life can throw at any of us. But the movie does have some moments that touch on the more ordinary realities. One soldier offers the bracing observation that a medal earned for bravery is nothing but a bit of tin. In one scene, a soldier has been fatally wounded and he asks his buddy if he’s dying. After a moment’s thought, the buddy replies that, yes, he probably is dying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that situation handled so realistically in a war movie.

 

New Yorker Notables

A Transparent Woman (Short Fiction) by Hari Kunzru; The New Yorker, July 6 & 13, 2020

A far cry from your typical New Yorker fiction, if you have a fixed idea of that genre as featuring mostly quiet, domestic, middle-class consternation. This one is about a woman in a punk band in East Berlin in the 1960s and the terrors she experienced at the hands of the Stasi, the East German secret police. The chilling story feels so real – its detail so convincing – that you feel the author must have experienced something much like this herself. If so, she might not be you’d call a typical New Yorker author.

 

Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey (Short Fiction) by Haruki Murakami; The New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2020

This could be a significant tribute to Haruki Murakami’s writing: he got me to read a story, even though the main character is a talking monkey. (I generally avoid anything with a sci-fi, fantasy or magical element.) The narrator is visiting a hot-springs town in Japan and he’s staying at a shabby inn. While he’s soaking in the bath, a monkey shows up, offering to scrub his back. A conversation ensues and later that night, over some beer and snacks, the monkey offers some observations on his difficulty in finding someone to love him. That leads to some provocative thoughts about love relationships.

Later, in his career as a writer, the narrator is trying to decide if he can tell anybody about this encounter; he decides not to, because people will only say he’s making it up. An editor would demand to know what the theme of the story is. The narrator’s not sure there is one. But then he encounters a woman who seems to confirm some of what the monkey said about love. Something to do with your loved-one’s name. An intriguing suggestion that reminds me, a bit, of Andr Aciman’s superb novel about love, Call Me by Your Name.

 

White Noise (Short Fiction) by Emma Cline; The New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2020

A man has the use of a friend’s house, complete with butler service and other luxuries. The man, named Harvey, has something to do with making movies. He seems to be awaiting the resolution of a trial of some sort; it seems he’s had a falling from grace. He’s fielding calls from a journalist who wants an exclusive interview as soon as the trial’s outcome is announced. Could this be Harvey Weinstein?

And, wait a minute...."White Noise" – isn’t that the title of one of Don DeLillo’s famous books?

Well, yes it is. And this central character is, in fact, Harvey Weinstein (although I don’t think his last name is ever given). Emma Cline is giving an intimate account of what the movie mogul’s life must have been like as he was waiting, more or less in seclusion, to find out what his fate would be. And he has just realized that the next door neighbour, whom he spots outside the house, is the real-life author, Don DeLillo.

Can you do this? Can you use real people in fiction, portraying their private lives in ways that you don’t have any access to? The picture that Ms. Cline creates of the much-accused sexual predator rings absolutely true. There’s the self-delusion, the defensiveness, the halfway admission of some guilt – after all, he’s not as bad as Polanski – a thirteen year old! The hope for forgiveness and understanding, the politeness to the people around him, the attempt to brush off all the fuss as if it’s not really bothering him. Hence the plans for another movie, the thoughts about how his neighbour, the writer, might collaborate on it. Plus, fantasies about holidays and celebrations with friends when all this trouble is over. And yet, a visit from a young woman who’s providing medical support shows the lecher swinging – yet again – into his seductive wiles.

One of the most poignant scenes comes in a supper visit with the producer’s daughter and her daughter. The middle-aged daughter represents the rest of us, the outside world: she can see how terrible her father’s situation is, she can’t minimize the wrong he has done, and yet there’s her concern for him as a suffering, lost man. There’s so little that they can say to each other; the talk is bland and time-filling; it’s virtually impossible to show any of the kind of support a daughter would hope to show.

A searing portrait of a person who has done terrible things but whom the author can see as a conflicted, confused human being.

 

The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time (Short Fiction) by Franz Kafka; The New Yorker, June 29, 2020

Four recently translated snippets from the master of surrealism – bordering on dream-like, if not quite nightmarish. There’s a kind of quirky appeal to them, but would they have been published by the New Yorker if it weren’t for the author’s status? Do enigmatic tidbits like these have any meaning for readers today? After living with them in my mind for a while, I’ve decided that, yes, they do. A weird exchange between a traveller and a farmer has a lingering intrigue. Not that I know what it means.

 

Jack and Della (Short Fiction) by Marilynne Robinson; The New Yorker, July 20, 2020

On the surface, it’s a simple account of a tentative romance between a black woman and a white man. He’s a somewhat disreputable character and she’s a prim school teacher. But, this being a piece of fiction by Marilynne Robinson, you might know that it will take you to places in the human heart where you’ve never been; it will stir up sympathies in you that you never knew you had. At first, mind you, it can be a bit difficult to orient yourself to the context of the story, to figure out what’s going on; narrative clarity isn’t the strong point of the story’s opening. But this could be because the piece – as often in New Yorker short fiction – might be excerpted from a novel. (The note on contributors at the front of the magazine would seem to indicate that this is so.)

 

The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Science) by Bill Bryson, 2019

Bill Bryson is such a congenial raconteur that you owe it to yourself to pick up anything he’s written, whether it be travelogue, history, memoir or science. This book fits into that final category. But don’t be intimidated. His trademark humour is never far from the surface: take that subtitle.

On picking up this book at the library, however, I was somewhat daunted by its nearly 400 pages, expecting that it would take me a long time to get through it. As it turned out, I romped through it as fast as I could. Mr. Bryson leaves you begging for more at the end of every chapter.

Mr. Bryson’s intention in The Body is to bring us up to date on the most recent findings about our organic constitution. Chapters are divided, logically, according to body parts: head, stomach, lungs, guts, bones, etc. And the question of care for this marvellous organism leads inevitably to talk of nutrition and medicine. Despite all the science involved, he does so in his characteristically breezy fashion. Just occasionally, the information gets a little too technical for the typical reader (for this one, at any rate) but I think we have to grant that Mr. Bryson needs to include some of the complicated chemistry for the sake of accuracy; he can’t be expected to gloss over every tricky explanation.

An overview of this book might see it as comprising, essentially, material that falls into four categories: 1) amazing facts you probably didn’t know; 2) things that nobody knows, i.e. puzzles; 3) scientists whose discoveries were pooh-poohed and who didn’t get the acclaim they justly deserved; 4) social issues having to do with health. The book includes lots of material in all four categories.

But let’s take that one about puzzles. Practically every other page of text includes the word ‘mystery’ or some variation on the idea. Articulations abound like: "Nobody knows why..." and "It remains a puzzle..."

Your body is a universe of mystery. A very large part of what happens on and within it happens for reasons that we don’t know – very often, no doubt, because there are no reasons. Evolution is an accidental process, after all.

Just a few examples of the kinds of things for which Mr. Bryson says the explanations have eluded us:

  • Nobody knows for sure whether a chill is likely to cause a cold or why it does -- if it does.
  • Why do humans suffer strokes? (Most other mammals never do.)
  • The physical purposes of eyebrows and eyelashes aren’t certain.
  • Why do some feelings make us cry?
  • What are tonsils for?
  • Nobody knows why the body sometimes develops a fever.
  • Why are taste receptors found in the heart, lungs and even the testicles?
  • Why are 80 percent of stutterers male?
  • No one understands why we yawn.

As for the amazing facts, or what might be seen as conversation starters (or stoppers):

  • Each of us has about 40,000 microbes living on us at any given time.
  • Each of us has about 20,000 genes of our own but perhaps as many as 20,000,000 bacterial genes: you are roughly 99 percent bacterial and not quite 1 percent you.
  • Of the hundreds of thousands of viruses thought to exist, only 263 affect humans.
  • Our saliva contains a tiny amount of painkiller that is six times more potent than morphine.
  • We all have about 350 to 400 odour receptors, but only about half of them are common to us all; this means that we don’t smell the same things.
  • Given the tiny electrical twitches at the cellular level, the amount of electricity going on within your cells is a thousand times greaer than the electricity within your house.
  • The smell of flatulence is caused by hydrogen sulfide but it accounts for only about one to three parts per million of what is expelled.
  • The outermost layer of skin, i.e. the part that makes us lovely, consists entirely of dead cells.

What might be considered a sub-categoryof the "amazing facts" section could be entitlled Everything you learned in high school is wrong! Some of the misconceptions, Mr. Bryson cites:

  • The "tongue map" which specified zones for the elemental tastes, and which was included in textbooks, was a myth based on a misunderstanding of a scientific paper.
  • The common belief that Vitamin C will help to get rid of a cold has been pretty well discredited by many studies.
  • The conviction that we should all drink eight glasses of water a day is "the most enduring of dietary misunderstandings." In fact, this is about the amount of water that we take in every day but about half of it is contained within our foods.
  • Caffeine drinks are not diuretics that make us pee out more than we take in; they do make a net contribution to our personal water balance.

As for breakthrough discoveries that weren’t appreciated in their time:

  • William Harvey (1578-1657) discovered how the heart and circulatory system work, but his findings were almost universally ridiculed. His peers thought him "crack-brained."
  • In the early 20th century, a Polish migr chemist in London, Casimir Funk, speculated correctly as to the existence of vitamins. Sir James Barr, president of the British Medical Association, dismissed them as "a figment of the imagination."
  • Theobald Smith, working in the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered salmonella in 1885 but he was robbed of the credit for his discovery because it was the custom to list the head of the department as the lead author on a scientific paper. In this case, the head of the department was Daniel Elmer Salmon, so his name was attached to the microbe.
  • Albert Schatz (1920- 2005) discovered that soil microbes could provide an additional antibiotic to penicillin – streptomycin – but his supervisor, Selman Waksman took all the credit. Waksman received the Nobel Prize in 1952; nothing for Shatz. In 1993, the American Society for Microbiology tried to make up for the oversight by awarding Shatz its highest prize: a medal named after Waksman.
  • In 1999, Russell Foster proved that our eyes contain photoreceptor cells that have nothing to do with vision but exist simply to detect brightness – to know when it is daytime and when night. That seemed so unlikely that most people refused to believe it, not least because the experts could not accept that they’d missed something in their studies of the human eye.

Given the subject matter, we can’t expect Mr. Bryson to bombard us with jokes in the way he does in some of his other books. But he does manage to squeeze in a few witty remarks:

  • Re the efficiency of the brain: "Your brain requires only about four hundred calories of energy a day – about the same as you get in a blueberry muffin. Try running your laptop for twenty-four hours on a muffin and see how far you get."
  • At a dissection, on the sight of all the stuff crammed into the human body in what seemed a disorderly mess. It’s "as if this poor, anonymous, former person had had to pack himself in a hurry."
  • "Dying is, to coin a phrase, the last thing your body wants to do."

This one may not be witty, exactly, but it’s a good example of pithy writing. Mr. Bryson says that the immune system "has to be a bit like security people at airports watching stuff on a conveyor belt and only challenging those things that have nefarious intent."

Any complaints? Any omissions from my point of view? Well, just a few. In talking about the marvellous structure of the foot, Mr. Bryson explains how it must provide the right conditions for both walking and running. He goes into some detail about what walking means, but I would have liked a similar analysis of running. I find it quite difficult to describe, precisely, in kinetic terms, how running differs from walking.

On the subject of hiccups (spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm) Mr. Bryson raises doubts about whether the usual attempts to control them – startling the sufferer, rubbing their necks, having them take a big sip of iced water, etc – work. But he doesn’t mention the one that works for me: taking a deep breath and holding it for as long as possible. That takes control of the diaphragm, shows it who’s boss.

In describing the structure of the hand, Mr. Bryson notes that the left hand’s ring finger (and also the corresponding finger on the right hand), due to its position, "can’t really contribute much to fine movement and so it has less in the way of discriminating musculature." It seems to me that this is something like a reversal of logic, or maybe a confusion of cause and effect. I always thought that the ring finger couldn’t contribute much to fine movement because it lacked sufficient musculature. (At least, that’s what my piano teacher always said.) Mr. Bryson is saying that it can’t contribute much and so it has less discriminating musculature.

For the most part, Mr. Bryson confines himself to conveying interesting information about our bodies; he doesn’t often let his opinions intrude (except for the occasional parenthetical wisecrack). But when he talks about the inequality in the health benefits around the world, he edges close to making a point about social justice; he certainly intends, by highlighting certain anomalies, to get us thinking about such circumstances. He doesn’t quite drop the genial tone, but an edge comes into his voice, a sound of concern.

For instance, a thirty-year-old black male living in Harlem, New York, is at much greater risk than a similar Bangladeshi of dying from stroke, heart disease, cancer or diabetes. In Paris, people at a certain point on the Metro line have an 82 percent greater chance of dying within a given year than people five stops down the line. In St. Louis, Missouri, a drive of twenty minutes from a prosperous area to the innercity takes you through areas where life expectancy drops by one year for every minute of the journey.

In terms of life expectancy, then, one thing is sure: it helps to be rich. A poor person can expect to die between ten and fifteen years sooner than a rich person who has a life style that’s equivalent to the poor person’s in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep and so on. The other obvious thing about life expectancy: it’s not good to be American. Even being well-off in America doesn’t help you in comparison to your peers in the rest of the industrialized world. A middle-aged American is more than twice as likely to die – from any cause – as someone from the same age group in Sweden. For every 400 middle-aged Americans who die each year, just 220 die in Australia, 230 in Britain, 290 in Germany and 300 in France. Children in America are 70 percent more likely to die in childhood than children in the rest of the wealthy world. Even sufferers from cystic fibrosis live ten years longer, on average, in Canada than in the U.S. And these outcomes apply, not just to poorer citizens, but also to college-educated Americans when compared with their socioeconomic equivalents abroad.

And yet, America spends two and a half times more per person on healthcare than the average for all other developed nations. "How to explain such a paradox?" Mr. Bryson asks. Well, lifestyles for one thing. The average American consumes about 250,000 more calories per year than the average Dutch or Swedish citizen: "You could get a similar boost if you sat down about twice a week and ate an entire cheesecake." Also, life in America is riskier. A U.S. teenager is twice as likely as a young person in a country abroad to be killed in a car accident and eighty-two times more likely to be killed by a gun. Americans drive and drink more and helmets for motorcyclists aren’t required in 60 percent of states. The U.S. clocks 11 traffic deaths for every 100,000 people every year. The U.K.: 3.1; Sweden: 3.4; Japan: 4.3.

Meanwhile, health care costs in the U.S. are colossal. Many procedures in the U.S. can cost four to ten times as much as in other countries. Not to mention the pharmaceutical industry’s courting of doctors to push the company’s products and the industry’s manufacturing of drugs that don’t actually do any good in terms of life expectancy. On top of which, there’s the insidious problem of overtreatment. It used to be that doctors tried to make people better; now the growing emphasis is on trying to head off problems before they arise. Hence multiple tests and treatments. A lot of that has to do with doctors hoping to avoid lawsuits. (At risk of being accused of cynicism, one might point out that the over-treatment could have something to do with doctors’ income streams.)

But many of these interventions produce little genuine benefit, it turns out. "Almost three-quarters of the forty million antibiotic prescriptions written each year in the United States are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics." The National Academy of Medicine in the U.S. has estimated that $765 billion a year – a quarter of all health-care spending – is wasted on pointless precautionary measures. Another study put the amount of waste at 50 percent, pointing out that 85 percent of preoperative lab tests are completely unnecessary. In 2013, an international team of researchers found 146 common medical practices "had no benefit at all" or were inferior to the practices they replaced. A study in Australia found 156 common medical practices to be "profoundly unsafe or ineffective."

Finally, one minor flaw, a typo: on page 47 the phrase "to must of us" should read "to most of us." I mention this not to flaunt my persnickety perfectionism but only to point out that even in the case of a most celebrated author and a venerable publisher (Doubleday Canada), such glitches can occur.

Oh, and by the way, the footnotes offer tons more fascinating information – almost amounting to another book on their own!

 

American Dirt (Novel) by Jeanine Cummins, 2019

This story of a woman’s arduous escape from Mexico starts with a bang. In Acapulco, her extended family is attending a birthday party. A group of killers from the reigning drug cartel arrives and shoots up everybody on the patio. But Lydia, the protagonist, has managed to shove her eight-year-old son, Luca, into the protective alcove of the tile surrounding the shower. She cowers with him there until the bloodbath is over. Sixteen family members, including Sebastian, Lydia’s husband, have been killed.

Now Lydia and Luca have to get as far away from Acapulco as possible, given that the drug lord who ordered the killing vowed to wipe out all of Sebastian’s family. Why? In retaliation for a newspaper article that Sebastian, a journalist, had written about him. Lydia had read the article before publication. Although there was no evidence to prosecute him, everybody knew what his business was, so Lydia thought he wouldn’t mind the article, he might even be flattered by it. Wrong decision, Lydia!

What follows is a horrendous saga as Lydia and Luca try to make their way north to the United States. Author Jeanine Cummins shows that she knows the territory well. She describes vividly, not just the terrors, but also the bureaucratic complications lying in wait for the migrants. For instance, it’s impossible to board an airplane because Lydia doesn’t have identification for Luca. Seems there are no passenger trains in Mexico, so they’re forced, like other migrants, to ride on top of freight cars. To replenish her dwindling cash, Lydia finds that she can’t empty her deceased mother’s bank account without her mother’s last will and testament....and so on.

Ms. Cummins makes it clear that the cartels have their tentacles in every aspect of Mexican life. Throughout her journey, then, Lydia is constantly afraid that she may be recognized and caught by one of the narcos. She never knows whom she can trust among the people she meets along the way. If they seem helpful, are they malevolently luring her in? And then there are the purely physical ordeals: the relentless heat, the hunger and thirst, the storms, the flash floods, the dangers lurking in the deserts.

The author’s writing is at its best (in my opinion) when there’s a lot of drama and action – as in that killing spree that opens the book. And when the migrants are attempting to climb onto a passing freight train. In describing how Lydia and Luca learn to master the art, Ms. Cummins shows that she understands the process well. The prose also brims with excitement when groups of migrants, including Lydia and Luca, are fleeing government troops or vigilantes.

By way of contrast, another type of good writing comes at migrant refuges along the way. These places are usually run by religious people among whom we meet some kind and admirable individuals. A different kind of admirable person (to my mind) is the "coyote" who, for a considerable price, escorts migrants through the desert on their approach to the U.S. He’s a hard-nosed, unflinching business man and yet a reasonable, fair, honest person with an interesting history.

On the whole, though, this is not the kind of novel (or film) that I particularly enjoy. I’m not much engaged by the story of someone who sets out to reach an almost impossible goal and goes through hell to get there. (See my review of the movie 1917 on this page.) In her author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Cummins tells us that she is attracted to stories about "inconceivable hardships" and "extraordinary trauma." Me, not so much. I prefer stories that are closer to the life that we all know, stories that show how people deal with the kind of problems and challenges that confront most of us all the time. However, there is obviously a large readership that enjoys the kind of fiction Ms. Cummins offers – note the selection of this book for Oprah’s book club – not to mention the authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Ann Patchett, who have provided glowing blurbs for the book’s cover.

But even if this were a kind of story that I liked more than I do, aspects of the writing irk me. Ms. Cummins often sounds like an author who has a thesaurus close at hand and who, thereby, picks words that sound impressive but aren’t ordinarily used in the way she uses them. For instance, she says that Luca knows that he should act as if everything’s normal "and he’s managed that behemoth task so far." One would not normally refer to a task as behemoth. Ms. Cummins applies "nefarious" to a person, whereas it’s usually applied to a scheme. Touching the train tracks, a character can feel "the energy of the train percussing through the waiting steel." I don’t think ‘percuss’ is used as a verb in this way. We’re told about a sleeping person’s "casting breath." I think I know what the writer means but ‘casting’ doesn’t seem the right word for it.

Maybe it would be unfair to accuse a writer of indulging in melodrama in the telling of such a horrendous tale but the purple prose in certain places could have been curtailed. We’re told that, at one point, Luca’s fright brings to mind a bird accidentally trapped indoors, beating itself against the window: "Luca’s heart is in a similar terror, so it feels as if the glass of his rib cage might shatter and fall if the bloodied carcass of his heart doesn’t smash itself into dead pulp first."

The following could be one of the more egregious examples of over-writing:

So there it is. The welling reservoir of grief, keen and profound beneath the bruise, the proof of her humanity, still intact. She needs to bury it back where it was. She can’t indulge it yet. She imagines a hole in the desert floor, all her pain inside. She imagines covering it with dirt, pressing down on the earth with her soiled hands ... (my ellpisis)... Lydia sheds the violent skin of everything that’s happened to her. It rolls down from her tingling scalp off the mantle of her shoulders and down the length of her body. She breathes it out. She spits it into the dirt.

A few more examples of writing that reaches too far:

  • Luca’s impression of his mother’s face: "It’s as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once."
  • "Lydia feels like a cracked egg and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white."
  • In the early days of Lydia and Sebastian’s courting, he "...made show of looking discreetly down her top." How do you do something discreetly and make a show of it?
  • When someone eyes Lydia suspiciously, "...there’s a little racehorse of adrenaline that clobbers through her body."

Also, Ms. Cummins falls back on that annoying habit of trying to convey emotion by frequent reference to autonomic responses. In just one moment of panic, Lydia’s "heartbeat increases, her pupils dilate...all her muscles either constrict or twitch [all of them?] , and her skin prickles with goose bumps. Her palms grown slick and clammy." This is the kind of clich that so quickly drags down the quality of writing but could be easily avoided. Sometimes, the author describes physical reactions that nobody could possibly witness. "The pads of his fingers turn yellow as they dig into the bones of Mami’s wrist." How would anybody see the colour of the pads of his fingers in that position?

A lot of my problems with the book centre around the characterization of Luca. Ms. Cummins often attributes to him thoughts that could only, plausibly, be attributed to a more mature person. We’re told that he "has rather enjoyed this one perk of having his whole life annihilated." It’s improbable that any such thought would come to an eight-year-old in those terms. The use of the word ‘annihilated’ sounds like we’re hearing, not the child’s thoughts, but what an adult author is attributing to him. Same for this passage: "In some primal way, he knows that once they’re safe, the monsters he’s so far managed to repel will come crashing in, and now there will be new monsters with them." Really? An eight-year-old??? And: "Luca knew it was a long shot anyway, but hardly any of the rules from his old life seem to apply anymore..." A long shot....would any such expression come to the mind of an eight-year-old?

None of which is to say that the writing doesn’t have its good points.

  • "If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief." [i.e. she’ll have to deal with the grief later; the terror is the main thing now.]
  • "When the desert sunlight shines on any scrap of moving color, that color radiates like a beacon."
  • Another desert description that works beautifully: "The temperature, the light, the colors, all hang and linger at some unflawed precipice, like the cars of a roller coaster ticking ever so slowly over the apex before the crash."

Ms. Cummins says in her author’s note that, hearing the story of migrants to the US every day, she wanted to make singular individuals of those people so that we would stop seeing them as a faceless, nameless horde. She has certainly done that. However, a book like this appeals less to me than to readers who enjoy, not only a tale of stunning courage, but also a type of writing that blazes forth in a display of writerly prowess that sometimes dazzles like fireworks but often fizzles.

 

Boy Wonders (Memoir) by Cathal Kelly, 2018

My reason for taking a chance on this memoir – apart from the fact that it won the 2019 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour – is that the author, Cathal Kelly, is such a good writer. How good? Well, I can sometimes be found reading his articles in The Globe and Mail’s sports pages, a section of the paper that otherwise goes straight into our recycling bin.

And yes, his memoir about growing up in Toronto is also well-written and engaging. The prose is clear, concise and to the point. The memoir isn’t structured chronologically. Instead, the chapters are based on subjects or themes: music, clothes, cars, tv, sports, etc. This hopping back and forth through life’s events can make for some confusion as to when and where certain things happen, but it doesn’t detract in any way from the book’s entertainment value. Of course, like every memoirist these days, Mr. Kelly has to include a disclaimer about the process. About one memory, he has this to say:

While I’ve spent three decades collecting this memory, my subconscious has been rewriting it. Not changing it entirely, but applying a series of corrective tweaks. Replacing good lines with better ones, inserting people on the periphery who weren’t there, monkeying with the timeline.

He goes on to say that you don’t recall your life "as a broad sweep of events." Instead, he says, "it’s a series of random snapshots." If you shuffled these interconnected vignettes into the right order, they might make a decent art film. "It’s probable only you would get it."

And do the rest of us get this memoir? It’s unfailingly fascinating, but it’s hard to feel that you really know the author. Mr. Kelly talks about roaming the streets of Toronto with his teenage pals, looking for fights. And he got into some doozies. In fact, he espouses the theory that, for any man should experience at least one fight that he loses badly and another fight that he wins handily. Mind you, Mr. Kelly does offer a somewhat civilized justification for his theory about losing one fight and winning another: "The first teaches you humility; the second gives you dignity. Having done both, you can move on to a life without violence."

Still, Mr. Kelly says that, when he became the de facto manager of a movie theatre in Toronto, what he enjoyed most were the fights that tended to break out in the movie line-ups. He even goes on to speak – in a hypothetical way, admittedly – about an office scenario where somebody punches you in the mouth. "Do you believe your colleagues would think more of you if, instead of throwing back, you ran off to tell human resources?"

Maybe Mr. Kelly’s ideas about such things seem unusual to me because his family situation was unlike that of anybody I’ve ever known. Home life was not exactly a hotbed of affection and sentimentality for Mr. Kelly. His parents, both Irish immigrants, seemed ill-suited to each other and they divorced when Cathal was seven years old. After that, the child’s contact with his father amounted to week-end ordeals. (The only thing like a father-son chat that the young Kathal ever experienced was the kindly guidance of a male hair stylist who tried to steer him away from some disastrous grooming choices.) Eventually the dad, whose parenting was slapdash and irresponsible to put it mildly, lost his visiting rights. In due course, the senior Kelly was diagnosed as mentally ill and admitted to a psychiatric hospital ward. The son saw him a few times after that but, by the time the father died, they hadn’t met for a couple of years.

So it was their mother who was most formative in the bringing up of Cathal and his younger brother, Brendan. And Mrs Kelly (I can’t find either parent’s first name in the book), from rural Irish stock, had a hard-nosed view of life. People had duties – going to church, to school, getting a job – and that was that. Life was not about pleasure and self-satisfaction. It was his mother, not his father, who advised him that when somebody hits you, you should hit him back. When the teenaged Cathal told her about his prolonged meditation on whether or not to steal an enormous sum of money from the movie theatre where he was working, his mother verbally endorsed his decision to eschew the theft. But something about her attitude left him with the feeling that she regretted his not having the guts to take the money. At one point in his teenage years, Cathal heard his mother laughing with his girlfriend in the kitchen; that was the only time he ever heard his mother laugh.

If this kind of upbringing inclined Mr. Kelly to a dim outlook on life, it was reinforced by his mother’s reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm to her two sons. Strangely, it was the only thing she ever read to them. There was no cuddly bedtime routine in the household, no tucking in, no patting of heads, just a lot of yelling until the boys settled down. But their mother made them listen to Animal Farm with the same diligence that some parents might put into teaching their kids bible stories. That book seemed to nurture Mr. Kelly’s view that life was pretty much of a scam, that the good and virtuous don’t get what they deserve. And yet, he takes a somewhat philosophical view of the situation:

It’s been my experience that the most successful people are usually the most adept phonies. There’s no harm in it, I suppose. Working life is a competition. Some adapt to it better than others, and have earned the spoils.

Sociey’s propensity for phoniness in most realms could explain Mr. Kelly’s interest in sports. There’s no faking your game. Either you have it or you don’t. The sporting world is the closest thing to a meritocracy, as Mr. Kelly sees it. The best is the best and there’s no disputing the scoreboard. We see, then, a kind of absolutism in Mr. Kelly’s attitude to life, perhaps a binary view of it all: win or lose, that’s all there is to it.

Mr. Kelly, although obviously clever, doesn’t come across as a deep thinker. He doesn’t ask any questions about the state of the world, about human affairs. He seems to have come to a few fundamental truths through a kind of street smarts and he sticks with them. Anything he hasn’t figured out, he tosses aside. That issue of his father’s mental illness, for instance. One can understand a breach between father and son, but wouldn’t you think the son would have something more to say about his father’s mental difficulty, whatever it was? Wouldn’t you think the son would try to understand? Wouldn’t he, at least, wonder what traits he might have inherited from his father?

The same sort of intellectual diffidence shows in Mr. Kelly’s attitude to his Catholicism. Throughout his youth, he seemed to accept it simply as something that had to be observed; you had to go to Church, that was all there was to it. "Ours was not a household in which the art of explaining was much practised." As an adult, he hangs on to a kind of lukewarm Catholic practice – mass attendance on the big feasts and the occasional "furtive" confession. What Church seems to represent for him is a welcoming community, where you’re accepted with good will, no matter who you are. But he doesn’t waste much time pondering what it all might mean, if anything.

While the book did win the Leacock Award for Humour, I can’t say I found it especially amusing, apart from a sardonic tone running through the whole story. One humorous device that he does use effectively is self-contradiction. There’s this, for instance, about the embarrassing results of his passing a billet doux to a girl in school:

I decided then never to try again.

                    Of course, I tried again. A whole bunch of different ways....

Some outright jokes include this comment about Greek parents shaving their children’s heads to promote thick growth of hair: "Obviously, this sort of foresight is why the Greeks invented democracy." And I suppose one of the biggest jokes in the book would be the content of the chapter titled "Sex" which consists of just five words: "Less than I had hoped."

I’m not sure whether some of Mr. Kelly’s observations are intended as humorous or whether they can be taken as examples of his absolutist way of looking at things. For instance, his insistence that you can wear a black leather jacket only between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. The automatic reaction to any older man wearing one: "How sad." In a similarly dogmatic tone: "There is only one age at which it is permissible to talk about Thomas Pynchon at all – twenty-five – but you will sound like a pompous nitwit while doing so." And this pronouncement on tattoos: "There was a five-year window in the late eighties/early nineties when getting a tattoo was still cool." By the mid-nineties, only tattoos on the face could gain any credibility for "those who planned a career in the penal system." Maybe his tossing off these definitive pronouncements is part and parcel of his tendency to exaggeration. And social satire? Sometimes, though, you have to wonder about his disregard for fact. His claiming, for example, that the CBC tv series Beachcombers was about nothing but finding logs.

Although I’ve said that Mr. Kelly doesn’t come across as a deep thinker, he does offer some hard-earned nuggets of "wisdom" – the kind of thing you might hear from a benevolent uncle:

  • We waste far too much time worrying about what we should have been doing at the expense of enjoying whatever we did. I refuse to play that game.
  • I believe strongly that you can curse a thing by depending on an outcome. So I cleared my mind of desire. Whatever would happen had, in a sense, already happened. Take yourself to that future place. This mantra has seen me through many a hard time.
  •  [When his teenage pals were into glue sniffing] "Something in my lizard brain was telling me, ‘This won’t end well. Flee.’ Unlike my actual brain, my lizard brain has rarely let me down."
  • "Fear is corrosive. It’s far worse than whatever you’re afraid of."

And, if that benevolent uncle happened to be a writer:

  • "The best way to uncover your own literary voice is to read widely enough that you find five or fifty authors whose style you deeply admire. Then copy them."
  • "Some of the best advice I’ve received on writing is that it is finished once you have held it up and shaken out all the extra words."

And any creative person could take to heart this statement about what true art is: "Not making something great seem so. That’s easy. But finding something meaningless and giving it its due."

Sometimes, when it comes to appreciating memoirs, a lot depends on what you know of the author, what impressions of her or him you bring to the book. I have a feeling that people who know Cathal Kelly, who are familiar with his voice, with the kind of persona he presents, would rejoice in this book more than I did. Which is not to say that I didn’t find it intensely interesting. It’s just that I never quite felt that I was really getting the author, really knowing him as a person. Especially in the ending where Mr. Kelly goes all arty and enigmatic about the meaning of an umbrella that obscured his view at a mammoth rock concert. Somehow, in ways that I cannot fathom, the events surrounding that umbrella signalled the end of childhood for Mr. Kelly.

Maybe he’s too deep for me after all.

 

The Hard Way (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2006

I’m not sure how this Jack Reacher adventure showed up my list of books ordered from the library during the shutdown. Perhaps I’d read an article (possibly in the New Yorker) in which a critic expressed the opinion that this was one of Mr. Child’s best.

It starts with Jack Reacher’s coincidental observation of someone driving away in a car that was parked outside a caf where Jack was sitting. Turns out that the driver was making off with a large amount of money that had been left in the car as the required ransom for a rich guy’s wife and step-daughter who’d been abducted. An employee of the rich guy finds out that Reacher observed the car driving away; thus Reacher finds himself employed to help track down the kidnappers.

At first, this did not strike me as one of Lee Child’s best. It’s quieter, it moves more slowly than many of them. There isn’t a lot of Reacher’s wit or his daring physicality. The rich guy’s fortune, it turns out, comes from his owning a company that sends mercenaries to fight for countries who can afford them. A long section about some bad stuff that went down in Burkina Faso involved some military strategy that was difficult to follow. I’m not sure if this applies to Lee Child’s other books, but there’s virtually no character development here, except for Reacher and the person who, ultimately, turns out to be a despicable villain. Even the woman who becomes Reacher’s cohort and lover, briefly, doesn’t have much more than a functionary role in the story.

As for Reacher’s character, this touch of writing conveys one aspect of him that I’d not heard of before:

He liked to sit outside in the summer, in New York City. Especially at night. He liked the electric darkness and the hot dirty air and the blasts of noise and traffic and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped a lonely man feel connected and isolated both at the same time.

In terms of quips, there’s Reacher’s description of some guys as "a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic." Of the same thugs he says: "Guys like these, they couldn’t find their own assholes if I gave them a mirror on a stick." (That line comes back a few more times, ultimately with a certain ironic connotation.) Another endearing character trait: he knows nothing of text messaging. He’s also unaccustomed to cell phones. Every time somebody reaches for one, he’s afraid they’re going for a gun. As a veteran of many types of combat, he makes the interesting observation that battles are fought in four dimensions, not three: "Length, breadth, and height, plus time." I identified with Reacher on being informed of one idiosyncrasy: he never smiled for a camera. Speaking of a certain suspect, he says: "He just killed two innocent people. He’s a little under-developed in the conscience department." When it comes to Reachers’ disposing of bad guys: "And the remorse gene was missing from his DNA. Entirely. It just wasn’t there."

So much of the story takes place in the various parts of New York City that you would probably appreciate it more if you knew the geography of that city better than I do. However, about two thirds of the way through, the story moves to England and I found that material more enjoyable. Perhaps that’s because Mr. Child doesn’t assume that we know the place all that well, so he gives us a touristic take on its attractions. I find it odd though that Mr. Child, who is a Brit, I believe, speaks of the thousand-year-old "Westminster Cathedral" when he clearly means "Westminster Abbey."

With this move to Britain, though, the novel takes one of those surprising twists you find in some of the best thrillers. Suddenly, things are not what they seem. From that point on, the writing is terse, tense and exhilarating.

Showtime – as Lee Child puts it.

 

My Dream of You (Novel) by Nuala O’Faolain, 2001

Among the assorted books that came my way during the library closure, this 2001 novel by Nuala O’Faolain quickly got my attention. Years ago, I heard Ms. O’Faolain in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s "Writers and Company." I think the interview was about Ms. O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody? Thanks to Ms. O’Faolain’s irrepressible humour, it was one of the funniest interviews I’ve ever heard on that program.

This is Ms. O’Faolain’s first novel, published just seven years before she died, in 2008, at the age of 68. An experienced broadcaster by profession, she was obviously a very talented writer. This book is the story of Kathleen de Burca, a single woman, forty-nine years old, who has been making a living writing articles for a travel magazine. Deciding now that she wants a change of pace, she has left London, her base of operations, and returned to Ireland, her homeland, where she intends to research a historical case of adultery with a view to writing a book about it.

Several aspects of the case – which occurred around 1850 – suggest that it might prove more intriguing than the typical adultery hearing. (In an author’s note, Ms. O’Faolain says that all the documents she quotes regarding the case are transcriptions from the court records of the actual event.) The woman accused was a young Englishwoman who had been brought by her husband to a grand estate in Ireland that he had inherited from an uncle. The marriage seemed happy at first and the wife gave birth to a girl. After a few years though, something went wrong and the wife was accused of adultery with a groom who worked on the estate. But how on earth could the noblewoman have formed an alliance with a mere groom? He wouldn’t likely have been able to speak much English, having been raised speaking Irish. Much of the evidence against the supposed lovers seems sketchy and circumstantial. Is it possible that the woman was framed by her husband, with the help of colluding servants, to serve his own purposes?

Ms. O’Faolain brings those times and circumstances to life with vivid, evocative prose. She’s particularly good at establishing the ambiance of a place whether it be a drab castle or a soggy bog. The potato famine was just coming to an end and living conditions in the countryside were brutal. Corpses were found buried everywhere. Entire hamlets disappeared as starving peasants fled and their humble homes sank into the earth. Landowners didn’t have any idea how many had died on their properties; they only knew how many had died in the workhouses. (It surprised me to learn that landowners had to pay the way for the peasants who wanted to emigrate to America; much scheming went into finding the cheapest means of transport.) The plight of the young wife and her putative lover, as well as the aloofness and diffidence of the husband, are well situated in the midst of all this misery.

But much of the book becomes Kathleen’s thinking about her own life and how it is changing. A surprising love affair comes to her and it requires some difficult deciding. Eventually, she opts for the advice of a clergyman who once told her to choose the "less passive" course of action. (Sometimes, a phrase sums up the theme of a book. For instance, "always connect" has become known as the main message from E.M. Forester’s Howard’s End. In Ms. O’Faolain’s book, the words "choose less passive" could do the job.)

In some ways, the book becomes a meditation on feminist issues by way of Kathleen’s reflections on the differences between the lives of women like herself, her mother (who wasn’t exactly a happy person) and the woman accused of adultery a century earlier. Kathleen’s not a conventional Irish woman; she’s pretty casual about some of the ethical norms; and yet she does pray at times. There’s some amusement in her mixing up two of the major prayers to the Blessed Virgin. A poignant thread running through the story is Kathleen’s friendship with a gay man who also wrote for the travel magazine. He died suddenly and unexpectedly near the start of this story and Kathleen constantly misses his loyalty, his wit and his somewhat acerbic truth-telling.

An example of the beautiful writing, and in particular, of Ms. O’Faolain’s ability to cast a spell with her sense of place, is this passage about Kathleen’s visit to her childhood home:

We sat and drank our tea. The range was a new, oil-fired one, but it squatted where the old one had been, with the dishcloth airing on it in the same place. The lino on the floor was the same kind of lino. The homemade wooden bench I was sitting on I’d sat on as a little girl. It had seeme to me when I was a child that there was an invisible point of peace in the middle of this room, and that everything in the room bent in towards that peace. The new things made no difference to that sense of being in a benign space.

And this:

Often, over the years I was a travel writer, I’d be standing in a new hotel room, gazing inconsequently at the corner of the lawn below, or at the bland, fake watercolor on the wall, and I’d feel gathered around my own core, as if, with anonymous space all around me, the boundaries of my self were secure.

And yet, it’s not as if Kathleen’s view of life is all about security and peace. Take this cautionary note:

Even when we seem to be gathered safe into the fold of marriage, we can be driven by a dream of fulfillment and completion that leads us – like sheep hunted over a cliff by a wild dog – into a terrible fall.

After a rivetting account of watching a baby boy learn to walk, Kathleen makes this profound observation on how a mother’s guiding her child lovingly through that process could have a lasting effect on a person’s life:

That must be what gives the healthy people the gift of unself-consciousness. They can let go of themselves, without panic. They can peer at things, or listen to things wholly, without keeping something back to guard themselves with – their mouths slightly open, their eyes bright, their heads moving from speaker to speaker. They can look with perfect candor into the faces of the people they love, their selves forgotten. They are not afraid to forget themselves. They do not have to labor to tell the truth. They are themselves through and through. The shelter of love made them honest.

For me, this was one of those books that invites you to sink into its lovely prose like a warm bath. But the book may strike some readers as somewhat over-stuffed. Long passages detail Kathleen’s mulling over nearly every aspect of her past life, especially her relationships with her parents and her siblings. Maybe this is a hazard with first novels: the author has too much to say. However, I found nearly all of it revitting. The only element that threatened to look extraneous, in my view, was Kathleen’s relationship with the editor of the travel magazine and how that relationship might evolve in the future. But even that slightly dubious content didn’t spoil my pleasure of being in the company of a superb story-teller.

 

The Good German (Novel) by Joseph Kanon, 2002

The Second World War has just ended and Jake Geismar, an American journalist, has returned to Berlin, where he was formerly stationed, to cover the Potsdam Conference. (That event brought together the leaders of the US, the UK and the USSR to discuss post-war order.) Apart from this assignment and its historical implications, there are two main engines to the novel: Jake’s search for a married German woman with whom he’d had an affair and his attempt to find out why an American soldier’s body has washed up on the shore of a lake near Berlin with a lot of Russian cash in a money pouch on the body. These two stories, which merge eventually, are interesting; there are many touching, dramatic scenes in the book. Some very resonant moods are evoked.

But I found the novel far too complicated and prolonged, mostly in terms of the machinations between the Russian and the American forces who were supposed to be establishing order in Berlin. You have the feeling that the author wants to impress you with all the results of the laborious research that he’s done into the times and the circumstances. In spite of the book’s merits in terms of character, plot, atmosphere and romance (including sex), it’s a tough slog. My rough estimate of the book’s length puts it at well over 200,000 words (the length of a typical novel being about 80,000 words). Some long conversations go on for about ten pages, making you wish that the author would come to the point much more quickly. The novel does, however, paint an unforgettable picture of the devastation of Berlin, mainly as a result of the marauding of the Russians.

 

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