Dilettante's Diary

DECEMBER 2020

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JANUARY 5, 2021
DECEMBER 2020
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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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NOTE: Due to some glitches with our server, I'm not able to apply the usual formatting to these reviews. You'll notice that italics and bolded text are missing below. It's because of these technical problems that you haven't seen any recent entries on Dilettante's Diary. Hope you can bear with us until I get these issues sorted. Thanks. PD.

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A Star is Bored (Novel) by Byron Lane, 2020

This is one of those novels that keeps you guessing: what’s real here and what isn’t? We all know now that author Byron Lane’s experience as a personal assistant to actress Carrie Fisher prompted his writing of this “fiction.” It’s about a gay man, Charlie, who works for Kathi Kannon, a movie star in her fifties. Not one, but two disclaimers in the front of the book insist that it’s all fiction. But a little tease added to those notices points out that they appear at the insistence of the author’s attorney. Okay, Mr. Lane, so you want to keep up the pretense that none of this is your actual experience but you want to keep us thinking that much of it probably is....?

Such is the razor edge between humour and titillation that the book is balanced on. The question about truth or fiction never quite leaves your mind throughout the reading.

But does it matter?

Not really, in the long run.

The book is so entertaining that, ultimately, you don’t care much whether any of it actually happened. You accept that the character of the real-life actress probably inspired much of the author’s creation. What’s important is what he learned from the real person, even it’s attributed to the fictional character.

In the role of a first person narrator, Charlie (or Byron Lane?) has a remarkable gift for endearing himself to the reader. He presents himself at the outset as something of a loser. A gay man, he’s had no luck with relationships. Same with employment; he’s currently stuck in a dead-end job writing news on the night shift for a tv station. He lucks into the gig as the movie star’s assistant more or less as a fluke; an acquaintance recommended him. He was a childhood fan of Kathi Kannon; in fact, one of his most traumatic memories was the time his dad got rid of Charlie’s beloved Kathi doll. Charlie’s first interview with Kathi amounts to a lot of teasing, joking, stalling, fending-off and indecision. After a few weeks of nervous anticipation on his part, an urgent call from her in the middle of the night, asking him to run out and buy something she needs, seems to indicate that he’s hired.

What follows is a daily challenge of trying to figure out what his duties are. Every day, almost, includes some unexpected activity. Anyone for a sudden flight to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights? And how about some dog sledding while we’re there? Charlie’s employer is nothing if not spontaneous, impulsive and off-the-wall. The book’s title would almost seem to be meant tongue-in-cheek; even though Kathi often complains of being bored, she sounds like someone with ADHD. She is, in fact, bipolar and some of her manic episodes make Charlie wonder if he has screwed up her medications. At one point, he tells a friend that he feels like “Alice in Blunderland.” He will eventually learn, though, that matters beyond his purview are impinging on Kathi’s behaviour.

Gradually, we begin to appreciate the growing and strengthening bond between Charlie and Kathi. Not liking his name, she has given him a nickname with a pornographic spin to it. She buys him clothes that she thinks he should be wearing; she dictates his hair style. Out of the blue she notes that he has a very long neck. (The book’s jacket photo shows that the author does too.) She can seem callous, indifferent, self-absorbed at times, and yet she can display self-deprecating humour, as in her comment that she has to work to keep up her quirky image. Something of a joker on top of everything else, she’ll often announce some calamity, throwing Charlie into a panic, then admit that she’s just acting. She’s also capable of genuine compassion. One of the most moving scenes in the book is the one where she suddenly finds out that Charlie’s mother died when he was twelve; everything stops while she sits down and demands to know all about how this tragedy affected him.

It wouldn’t be fair to this book to pass over it without some reference to the many examples of fine writing. For instance, there’s Charlie’s impression of Kathi when she first meets him at the door of her Hollywood mansion: “... she looks so much like the woman I remember from my childhood movies yet donning gravity and time like some kind of disguise....” In the basement of his dad’s home, looking over the boxes of his mother’s stuff, Charlie thinks: “ ... all the moisture and memories stick to our skin, leave a taste in our mouths, our warm breath filling in the space left by our few moments of silence.” The book’s filled with wit, but one of my favourite lines is the one where another personal assistant to a movie star is telling about the time he had to stand guard on the front gates of the star’s estate because the security stystem was broken. Someone asks what was so valuable inside that had to be protected. The answer: “A big ego.” A special treat for this reader was the comment on a taxi driver up in Yellowknife whose answer to a question was “as sarcastic as possible for a Canadian.”

It may sound churlish to find fault with a book that provides so much pleasure, but I have to admit that, towards the middle, the allure of the Kathi-Charlie tug-of-war began to wane for me. I think that’s because there really isn’t much plot, not much forward momentum to the narrative. Apart from some suspense that kicks in near the end, it’s a series of episodes, for the most part. They’re all interesting but you can’t help wondering: is there any point to all this? I even started skipping through some passages to see where the book was going. (Maybe that says more about me than about the book?) Part of the problem is that the dynamic between Charlie and Kathi is lopsided. All the power is on her side; there’s not much he can do other than react to her. For a drama to be truly gripping, the sides have to be more evenly matched.

The author appears to be aware of that problem, in that he introduces several on-going issues to provide a kind of continuity to the story. The most effective one is Charlie’s attempt to find a boyfriend. (I found this quest more engaging at times than the interaction with Kathi.) Another project of Charlie’s is that he’s writing a book of instructions for anyone who might follow him in this job, so he pauses at frequent intervals to note a point for inclusion in this “bible.” He also frequently calls out thoughts to “Siri,” that omnipresent persona in some people’s lives. And then, there are the remembered comments from his psychotherapist, whom he dubs “Therapista.”

Another thing that helps provide continuity to the proceedings is Charlie’s reflection on how his relationship with Kathi compares to his experience with his deceased mother. He even goes so far as to take a locket that belonged to his mother and attach it to Kathi’s overloaded key ring. Meanwhile, Charlie is working through his feelings about his domineering, unsympathetic dad, who is still living. Awful as Charlie’s memories of him are, we get just a hint that the dad may not be quite as horrible as he looks on the surface. That’s an example of Mr. Lance’s skill with character. Another is the treatment of the psychotherapist. We never meet this person and yet, through Charlie’s one-line quotes from her, we form a distinct impression of the woman. Another striking character is an elderly cook, a woman who has been looking after Kathi since she was a child, and who now spends most of the day sleeping in a corner of the kitchen. As for Kathi’s mother, herself a former movie star, this is one formidable tower of wisdom, wiles, cunning and know-how.

Fittingly, though, it’s the character of Kathi that matters most and, I’m happy to say, the book ends with a resounding affirmation of what she meant to Charlie and how she opened him up to a new take on the world.


Lake Life (Novel) by David James Poissant, 2020

The Starling family has gathered at their summer home in North Carolina. This may be their last time there. The parents, Richard and Lisa, in their seventies now, are planning to sell the place and retire in Florida. It’s not clear how their two sons, Michael and Thad feel about that.

But that’s not the only problem in the air. Michael’s wife, Diane, is pregnant, even though they had both promised each other that they weren’t going to have children. And they’re trying to put a good face on the fact that Michael’s a salesman in a shoe store, even though he seemed to start out with greater promise as a young man. Clearly, Michael’s an alcoholic but nobody – including himself – is ready to acknowledge it.

Thad, the younger son, is supposed to be a poet but he hasn’t written anything for a long time. He suffers from depression and he attempted suicide when he was younger. This weekend, he’s accompanied by his boyfriend, Jake, who is an up-and-coming artist and is having considerable success in New York. Thad and Jake’s relationship is severely stressed because Jake, the younger of the pair, wants an open relationship so that they can have sex with other guys. Not Thad’s cup of tea.

Richard and Lisa have their issues too. Does she or doesn’t she know about the affair he’s feeling guilty about? Plus, the two of them share a sad family secret that they’ve never revealed to their sons.

As if all that isn’t enough to guarantee a troubled cottage visit, the book opens with the family’s witnessing the drowning of a young boy who falls off his family’s boat when his sister, who is supposed to be watching him, falls asleep. Michael dives into the water, in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the boy. On rising to the surface of the water, Michael hits his head badly on the underside of a boat and has to be taken to the hospital for stitches. His recuperation and the aftermath of the drowning have a lot to do with how the next days go.

David James Poissant treats all this with keen observation on the complexities of human lives. About the fuss around some small procedure, one character notes that this is the way of families: “the inconsequential elevated to the imperative.” I loved the author’s noting that Lisa can’t stop pressing a tea bag with a spoon against the side of the mug, even though Richard tells her not to. “She likes the way the water tans when the spoon meets the mesh.” Jake, the artist, has this thought: “How to explain the need to be admired, praised, and the wanting not to need such things so much?” A laugh from Lisa, in a difficult moment, is “a flower bloomed and dead and withered all at once.” And how’s this for summing things up: “To have a child is to ruin yourself, forever, in the name of love.” One of the sons claims their dad is depressed, even though men his age don’t show it: “They just live unhappily.” Thinking over some of her disappointments, Lisa realizes that “there are worse things than being given what is asked.” Richard finds that: “Love is dragging things behind you – [various problems are listed here] – and continuing on.”

Although Mr. Poissant ratchets up the suspense to a surprising degree near the end of the book, most of it consists of fairly low-key family interaction. The points of view vary from chapter to chapter; by the end of the book we’re well acquainted with each character’s thoughts and feelings. (But I never had much of an idea of what the Starling family members looked like.) Even a cop who has a small role makes a striking impression in a couple of pages. One can’t help noticing, though, that the Starling men are pretty awful; one of them even perpetrates a very mean ruse on an unsuspecting person. Lisa and Diane are much nicer people; Lisa is almost saintly in her loving and kindness. A scene of profound communication between the two women, when Lisa’s in the bath tub, is one of the most powerful in the book.

But I kept wondering: are everybody’s lives in such tumoil? Is everybody stewing in so much angst? Is it typical of partners that they’re constantly questioning each other’s love? Do they keep asking if their partner is going to leave them? At times, the contorted family dynamics made me feel we were in Edwad Albee territory. Granted, you don’t have a novel or a play unless there is some conflict, some strife, but Mr. Poissant seems to see human interaction as troubled, mainly.

This novel raised a question for me that doesn’t often come up: what do we expect from a novel? (I don’t know whether it was any particular quality of Lake Life that prompted this question; maybe it has something to do with my reaching a certain point in my reading life.) Is a good story enough? Or do we need the novel to say something significant about life? Do we want it to give us some better understanding of how life works (or doesn’t)? Some message that will help us get through the night? And, if we do expect some such pay-off to a novel, is a novelist who provides it merely pandering to our demands? Do we consider a novel complete and satisfying only if it delivers what we think a novel should? What about a novel that leaves ends dangling, that doesn’t provide a message, no clarification of the human condition? Wouldn’t that be truer to life?

Well, whether Mr. Poissant is pandering to our needs or not, whether or not he is delivering what we feel a novel should be, Lake Life does wrap up all the angst with some life-affirming details that are not only satisfying but probably quite realistic, in that it posits happiness as being about adjustments and compromises, not having dreams fulfilled.


Here We Are (Novel) by Graham Swift, 2020

The book opens in 1959 on the Brighton pier, in England. We’re dealing with three main characters who are involved in a variety show that’s being performed there. Jack is the show’s compere (master of ceremonies). A song-and-dance man, he’s also a bit of a rake. Ronnie is a magician featured in the show and Evie is his assistant, clad in sequins and ostrich feathers. Ronnie and Evie are engaged, but there’s a muted sadness in their dressing room; it seems that something has gone wrong with their relationship.

From that point, the book moves forward and backward, looking at the childhoods of these three people and how their lives turned out many years later. (In each case, their mothers loomed large as either promoting or resisting their child’s inclination to showbiz.) One of the most interesting sections tells about Ronnie’s evacuation as a child from London during World War II. He stayed for some years in the home of a well-to-do couple in the countryside around Oxford. This couple, who had no children of their own, provided the idyllic childhood that contrasted starkly with Ronnie’s impoverished existence in London. It was the husband of the couple who taught Ronnie magic.

This is an odd little book (just 200 short pages). There’s a wistful tone to it. I found it hard to see what the point of the book is. It’s not divided into chapters; the story proceeds with short installments, one following quickly after the other. It’almost seems as though the author felt the story was too slight to be slowed down with chapter breaks.

Why did Graham Swift, such a distinguished author (winner of the Booker Prize, for instance), want to tell us this story? Here We Are seems to have something to do with the fact that life changes in ways we can’t anticipate, ways we can’t control. Maybe that’s the point of the book’s title: we end up in places we never thought we would and we aren’t too sure how we got there. There’s talk of the difference between tricks and illusions. Of course, the aura of magic itself hovers over the story. We’re also asked to wonder about the meaning of that old cliché “The show must go on.” The real world is contrasted with the holiday world. A poignant moment comes when Jack notes that the theatrical world they’re inhabiting in Brighton in 1959 will soon disappear. (How true!)

But, in spite of some hint of mystery towards the end of the book and a reference to an “investigation,” I didn’t find Here We Are exactly gripping. That could be because Mr. Swift has chosen a rather formal, almost antiquated narrative voice. Here, for instance, is Mr. Swift’s account of Ronnie’s following Jack’s advice about hiring an assistant for his act: "So it was that years later, having pursued with dogged and solitary determination but with no great profit what he would sometimes speak of as his ‘calling’, Ronnie put an advert, following Jack’s advice, in one or two appropriate places."

And this is Evie’s thinking about the inheritance Ronnie received from Eric Lawrence the man from Oxford, who had been Ronnie’s mentor in the art of magic:"It was not so difficult now to guess, before Ronnie told her, that Ronnie’s ‘little windfall’, of which she herself was an indirect beneficiary, had come from this same Eric Lawrence, who, he said, had recently died. It became gradually apparent that another reason why all this information was emerging with such painfulness from Ronnie was that he was still in a state of mourning."
Perhaps the choice of this style was to make the events seem long ago and far off. That effect is achieved, but the downside of it is that there’s a lack of immediacy to the proceedings. That could be why, in spite of the beauty of the writing, the book doesn’t have a lot of resonance for me.


Masked Prey (Mystery) by John Sandford, 2020

The arrival of a new John Sandford mystery is always a welcome event hereabouts.

In this one, our favourite detective, Lucas Davenport, has been asked to look into a problem around Washington, D.C. It appears that some right-wing nut case has started posting online pictures of the children of some prominent politicians. The website featuring these photos doesn’t state its purpose explicitly, but it’s clearly intended to suggest that some ultra-right types might want to harm these kids – or at least threaten to do so – as a way of pressuring their politician parents to make decisions more favourable to the white supremacists. The website, of course, is buried deep within the dark web, making its provenance almost impossible to determine.

This leads Davenport to involvement with a lot of the Washington big wigs – with the result that I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as some of his other outings. I prefer the stories where he’s prowling the back roads of Minnesota, knocking on doors and turning up fascinating minor characters. However, we do get several of Davenport’s endearing traits. There’s his love of men’s fashions, his enjoyment of his wealth and his appreciation of the fact that this gives him a certain indifference to approval or disapproval from his bosses. He even tells us that his investments now stand at $40 million. (It came from his design of a computer program that helps police departments throughout the world.) He’s still addicted to Diet Coke. He’s still afraid of flying, as noted that on a particular flight “only half of Lucas’s mind was looking for signs that the plane was breaking up and that he was about to die.” With barely a twitch of guilt, he lies when it suits his purposes. At times, he seems to be taking a leaf from Jack Reacher’s books in the way that he takes the law into his own hands. But Davenport knows the difference between fiction and reality: “That Bourne shit, he learned, was harder and riskier than it looked.” I also like the fact that – like Reacher – Davenport’s solutions to crimes come mostly from his own cleverness, not from the machinations of some computer hacker or technological wizard. His cocky humour is intact. When asked about the surgeon who patched him up after a shooting in a previous book, Davenport answers: “I married her and she’s been in sexual heaven ever since.”

In the style of some of the best mysteries these days, Mr. Sandford throws a switcheroo at us about half way through the book; suddenly thing are not what they seemed. When a SWAT team is gearing up for major action, the thought crossed my mind that this was beginning to shape up like a movie script. Sure enough, as the assault was about to start few pages later, one of the characters said: “Let’s go make a movie.”

Some people might not see this as a credit to an author, but I find it commendable that Mr. Sandford has made the position of right-wingers and white supremacists understandable to a reader with a quite different mindset. You begin to see why they think the way they do, even if you disagree vehemently with their conclusions. Mr. Sandford also delves into a world that may be quite alien to some of us: the teenage obsession with internet celebrity. It’s a chilling picture but one that we have to recognize as a fact of the life that’s going on around us.

Just a couple of complaints: one minor, one major. In the lesser category, there’s the fact that one character is susceptible to frightening hallucinations. Maybe that appeals to some readers, maybe it heightens the drama, but I find it hokey. A more serious slip, in my opinion, is that Mr. Sandford inflicts death on an innocent person – unnecessarily, I’d say. The story would have worked just as well if the assault hadn’t succeeded in killing that person. Or even if we – and the authorities – knew that the bad guy intended to kill that person.
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