Dilettante's Diary

Jan 11/06

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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MIMC
May 27/12
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
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Art Toronto 2011
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
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Fall Reading 2010
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TOAE 2010
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
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Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
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How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
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Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
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Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
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Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
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Me and the Jays
July 10/05
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
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MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: The Leaders' Debate (TV); Body Worlds 2 (Anatomical Exhibiton); Wiener Blut (Operetta); The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (Novel); Mrs. Henderson Presents (Movie); Fidelio (DVD); Mozart Countdown (CBC Radio); Breakfast on Pluto (Movie); History of Shit (Social Studies)

The Leaders’ Debate (TV, Monday, January 9)

Dilettante’s Diary claims no expertise in the department of political analysis. However, we do feel qualified to appraise the leaders of Canada’s major political parties in terms of their performances as tv personalities. The prize for the most natural demeanour goes to Gilles Duceppe. It has been noted before that he has the least to loose in these debates, particularly the English ones, and this could explain his candid manner. But it could also be that he simply happens to have the most media savvy and knows best how to project a true self. Paul Martin came off not too badly in that he was less blustery than expected. He seemed to be trying to keep the discussion substantive and, in my opinion, had some success in establishing his qualities as a statesman. The fact that the moderator often cut him off in mid-sentence didn’t help, but you could see how he might have trouble getting everything said, since everybody was putting him on the defensive most of the time. Stephen Harper is hampered by that wispy half-smile that he presents at the end of every sentence. Has somebody told him he must do this to make himself more appealing? The one moment at which he struck an authentic note was when he murmured in a kind of aside, something along the lines of "That’s not the kind of person I am, everybody knows that." (Not an exact quote) I thought: oh, it looks like there might be a real man there. If we could get more of that off-hand candour, he might be more convincing. Sorry to say, Jack Layton still seems smarmy, although not as blatantly so as in the debates during the previous election. I wonder what it’s like to talk to him off camera? When the cameras come on, there seems to be a talking-doll syndrome that kicks in. His sanctimonious use of "I’m disappointed" and "It makes me sad" at the beginning of his criticisms of the other guys struck an especially phony note. Unfortunately, the artificiality detracts from some of his good ideas. (In the French debate next evening, he looked a little better, either because his struggle with the French kept him closer to the ground or because it earned our sympathy -- or both.)

Note on the French debate (Jan 10): I was able to watch only the first hour  but it had one great moment. The moderator asked the candidates about a law on assisted suicide. Almost without exception, they dropped their poses as political-know-it-alls and spoke as genuine individuals (apart from some introductory platitudes about the difficulty of such situations). It struck me that Paul Martin and Stephen Harper particularly were speaking from the heart. What a refreshing change!

 

Body Worlds 2 Gunther von Hagens' Anatomical Exhibition of Plasticized Real Bodies (Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, until Feb 26)

Twenty-five bucks seems a lot to pay for a show where the performers just stand around, especially when you consider that they’re giving their time for free. The dialogue is zilch and the plot would have to be considered pretty much back story. No costumes at all. Which doesn’t make for a skin show, because even the skin is missing in most cases. Still, you can’t fault these performers for not exposing themselves fully and revealing their inner depths. It’s amazing how the business of being human can be sliced up and dissected from so many angles. No effort is spared to give us a glimpse into the darkest corners of ourselves. We get to peer into those secret places that, until now, were off bounds to everybody but medical students and undertakers.

The question is, as with any great piece of theatre, what does this tell us about ourselves, about being human? Well, it tells me that I’m awfully complicated inside (something I’d always suspected). A heck of a lot goes into being me. This show helped me to get in touch with parts of myself that I’d vaguely known about but couldn’t pinpoint exactly. To tell you the truth, I’m mightily impressed, even a little in awe of this precious package. From now on, I’m taking better care of it all, to keep it functioning in top condition and looking good. After all, if I’m going to end up in one of these shows, I want to be among the perfect cast members, not the damaged ones.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help noticing that the vast majority of the bodies on display are of the male variety. Could this be because men are more prone to showing off, even when dead? Not at all, said a charming young attendant. The volunteers, she said, come in equal numbers of male and female. She gave me two reasons for the preponderance of males in the exhibit. First, Herr von Hagens felt that male bodies display the musculature and structure of the human anatomy better than female bodies. This sounds sexist in the extreme, but maybe she was referring to the fact that, in male bodies muscles form a much greater proportion of total body mass than in females. The second reason had something to do with – I forget the delicate wording she used – but let’s say that Herr von G felt that the inclusion of many female bodies in the display would stir up the wrong kind of interest

The show did offer an opportunity for learning a bit about some kinds of humans who are still alive, specifically Toronto high school students, who were present in large and lively numbers. I noticed that the young women were most responsive to anything involving babies and foetuses. Who says that playing with dolls isn’t inherently female in the human species? One young man admitted to a group of friends gathered around an exhibit, "This could give me nightmares [pause]....if I was about two years younger." On entering the larger hall of the show, I noticed welcoming benches placed around the room. You would think that they might have provided some needed respite for the visitors whose bodies were rapidly approaching the state where they would be candidates for the exhibition. But no, in the minds of the young female beauties who soon filled the benches, they were meant as ideal places for cozy social interaction among their friends.

 

Wiener Blut (Operetta) by Johan Strauss Jr. (Toronto Operetta Theatre until Jan 8/06)

The Viennese have more or less captured the New Year’s market for classical music. So I figured that, failing the gift of a ticket to Europe, a visit to the Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of a Viennese operetta might do. But I approached this event somewhat warily, not having much Austrian blood in me. When it comes to operetta, I’m much more a Gilbert and Sullivan guy. Still, I found this production very enjoyable. Lots of great tunes that have been rattling around in my head for years without my ever knowing where they came from. Everybody sang well, although a few of the voices were past their prime, with the result that some of the very highest notes lacked a really well-placed ring and came out more like a shout. For me, the most impressive singing came from two of the younger cast members. Sean Watson, who played the Prime Minister, has a rich, clear baritone and a strong stage presence. Soprano Carla Huhtanen’s voice (she played Pepi) was always bright, clear and perfectly on pitch.

The staging was pretty ho-hum. Nobody could think of any business other than fussing with crystal decanters. However, you don’t go to TOT productions for clever staging. Or impressive sets. And I could have done with less squealing and giggling from the women’s chorus. But my major complaint with the production was the English translation. (No one is credited in the program with that job and possibly for good reason.) I know the thinking is that a show works better if the audience understands what’s going on. The way many people in the audience were chuckling affectionately at all references to Vienna would suggest that they’d have understood the original German. As for the rest of us, were we well served by that hideously banal text? At one point, unless my ears were mistaken, the word "suggestion" was rhymed with "neglection". The plot involves a lecherous ambassador whose mistress pretends to be his wife when the prime minister comes to call, but the wife turns up unexpectedly and, in any case, the ambassador has his eye on a new conquest. Wouldn’t it have been better to listen to the beautiful German without knowing all that? For sparkling dialogue, witty satire and gorgeous tunes – put me on that chunnel train and get me to the D’Oyly Carte Opera – schnell!

 

The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut (Novel) by Robert Coover, 2002

This is the most pornographic novel you’ll ever read. Given the surrealistic style, it’s not easy to tell what’s going on but there seems to be a framing story in which the eponymous Pierre, a megastar of porn, staggers though a snowstorm with his constant erection exposed. By some weird merging of reality and celluloid, he keeps stumbling into scenes from his old movies. But these are porn movies the likes of which you’ll never see. While porn movies tend to be the most creatively limited and unimaginative art form that has ever existed, Pierre’s movies spared no expense and gloried in wildly uninhibited expressivity. All of this is conveyed in an over-wrought, feverish prose: think James Joyce for verbosity, Franz Kafka for nightmare, and Flann O’Brien for rollicking fantasy.

Come to think of it, the book may not be all that pornographic. Graphic, yes, but relatively innocent in that it focuses mostly on basic heterosexual coupling – or grouping, as the case may be. None of the dreaded "philias": pedo, copro, necro. (I don’t think it’s pedophilia if kids are playing around with each other.) And, as far as I can tell, it’s all consensual. Maybe some bestiality, but I’m not sure. In any case, you have to admire Mr. Coover’s ingenuity. He rings more changes on the sexual act than you could ever imagine. You wonder how long he can keep it up. Matter of fact, near the end of the 400 pages, poor Pierre himself is flagging in that department.

I suppose this kind of thing has to be done, if only to prove that it can be done. You know that it’s all a very worthy effort because the dust jacket tells you that Mr. Coover teaches experimental writing at Brown University. But, frankly, this is a tough read. The dense prose takes some determination to get through: very heavy on the description, hardly any dialogue, words on every page that you’ve never heard before. Each chapter is named after one of the women who starred in Pierre’s life but few of them emerge clearly as characters. It’s all very phallo-centric; if there’s such a thing as feminist porn, this ain’t it. You could probably find all sorts of erudite allusions in Pierre’s journey (Odysseus, perhaps) but I was reading fast to see if there was any point to it all other than a wildly erotic romp. There are some hints that this retrospective on his life has taught Pierre something, but I’m not sure what.

 

Mrs. Henderson Presents (Movie) directed by Stephen Frears

This movie looked promising for two reasons: it seemed to have something to do with show business and it starred Judi Dench. But then I stumbled on a preview that told me more than I wanted to know. The theatre in question was the famous Windmill that shocked London in the 1930s by presenting naked women on stage. If I wanted to see the movie, then, I was going to be forced to deal with all that female nudity. What was a high-minded boy to do?

Well, I steeled myself and forged ahead. After all, I reasoned, it might be good for my education in the history of the theatre. And it was. I learned that England’s all-powerful Lord Chamberlain allowed the shows on the strict condition that the naked girls appeared utterly motionless in tableaux. On those grounds, the argument went, the show couldn’t be any more immoral than a trip to an art gallery. As staged in this movie, the tableaux offer a sort of backdrop to dance numbers taking place downstage. At the crucial moment, a light comes on upstage and – voila! – naked women behind a scrim, posed as the muses, the seasons, deities or whatever.

I enjoyed the showbiz aspect of the movie. Some great singing in the style of the Andrews Sisters, with close harmonies. And a Fred Astaire type of guy with a nice voice and a light step. But, to me, it all looked more glitzy than what that underground theatre likely offered. As for the statuesque nudity, it was about as enticing as what you see in the windows at the Bay when they’re changing the mannequins. In fact, the whole movie has a fake, air-brushed feel. Judi Dench barely gets a chance to make a real person of Mrs. Henderson, the rich widow who launched the Windmill. The script labours mightily to establish her as the personification of the merry widow clich – a free spirit who loathes embroidering and who shocks do-gooders with her salty tongue. The sparks that are supposed to be flying between her and the theater manager (Bob Hoskins) don't have enough voltage in them to zap a fruit fly. It's all too damned cute and contrived.

Then comes the war. Guess what? Mrs. Henderson did it all for England! When the authorities threaten to close the Windmill, she delivers a mawkish Horatio-at-the-bridge speech proving that she is the Doctor Ruth of her day when it comes to understanding a soldier’s sexual needs. Call me a dirty old man in a raincoat, but I’d have liked the movie more if it had given us less pretension and more sleaze.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" – some good, some bad)

 

Fidelio (DVD) Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine, production by Jrgen Flimm.

I’ve always wondered why the cognoscenti insist that Fidelio is flawed. Ok, so maybe the structure is a bit wonky. Like the tenor doesn’t have to call a taxi to take him to the theatre until about an hour into the first act. But how much does that matter? The one time I saw a live production, I was working as stock boy for a drug store at Queen and Yonge Streets in Toronto. One evening, I went straight from work to the O’Keefe barn and plunked down my money for a Canadian Opera production. I sat there and the music swept over me seamlessly, washing away the day’s grime and toil. To me, the music expressed all the nobility and tenderness Beethoven felt about the marriage he never had. And I've always thought that would be so cool to have your wife come and rescue you from a dungeon.

Taking the excellent singing for granted in this 2002 Met performance, the thing that amazes me is that the 20th century realism works so well. To set classics in modern military dress has become something of a fad (Would you believe a Stratford Romeo and Juliet a few years ago set in Fascist Italy?) but here’s one case where it’s dead-on. The sight of all those swarthy guys in tan soldiers’ uniforms, the formidable firearms making the rounds – it’s all quite chill-inducing. On the domestic side, the interaction between Marzelline and her pa looks like its coming from a kitchen sink drama. Mind you, the home economics teacher in me shuddered when she started pouring coffee at the table where she was ironing. The prisoners' entrance offers of the most effective directorial touches. Usually, the chorus creeps out of the darkness bit by bit, singing as they come. In this production, as soon as Fidelio unlocks their cell doors, they trudge right out –  nothing hesitant or stagey. That leaves them standing there, in the bright light, looking stunned, until it occurs to them to sing. Altogether a much more convincing moment in a modernistic way.

Karita Matila’s acting as Leonora wowed me. With her blonde hair in a short, squarish cut, her high cheekbones and her mannish demeanour, she is totally convincing as a young guy. If it wasn’t for the close-ups that add a couple of decades, you could swear it was Matt Damon or one of his ilk up there. Ben Heppner also looks totally believable as the long-time resident of the dungeon, with his grimy rags and his matted hair sticking out all over. You can almost smell him. His singing is all the more impressive for the fact that he hardly ever gets to stand. He performs almost the entire role lying on the floor or on his knees.

In the last few minutes, though, the flaw in the opera begins to show. That Don Fernando stepping in to save the day is practically the definition of a deus-ex-machina. It really does feel like a cheat after all the dramatic build-up to that point. When the chorus starts beating up the evil governor of the prison, for one awful moment it feels like we're back in Gilbert and Sullivan territory (whom we love in the right time and place). But this is not to find fault with the music. It’s not Beethoven who’s letting us down. It’s his librettist, Joseph von Sonnleithner, isn’t it? In any case, I’m glad Ludwig Von didn’t let the drawbacks of the script stop him from producing this magnificent piece that I’ll be glad to sit through any time.

 

Mozart Countdown (CBC Radio Two, Monday, January 2nd)

How nice of CBC radio, at the bleakest time of the year, to come up with this great way to combat Monday morning mood. From 8 to 9 am every Monday through January, CBC Radio Two is running the "Mozart Countdown", leading up to the 250th anniversary of his death on January 27th. During this hour, various artistic celebrities will be offering their choices of favourite Mozart compositions and listeners are invited to send in their votes. Please inform all bill collectors, irate lovers and New York agents not to call me between 8 and 9 on Monday mornings.

Of course, it’s silly to try to pick a favourite Mozart composition. Possibly, a person could come up with 10 favourites, more likely 20. But I think of this event less as a competition among pieces and more like a party where everybody shares specially loved selections. That’s howMonday’s kick-off felt (January 2nd), thanks to host Shelagh Rogers’ friendly, enthusiastic style. (It’s great to hear her again on Radio Two after her abandoning us a few years ago for Radio One.) This Monday, in the segment focusing on opera, she hosted guests baritone Russel Braun and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, both eminent Canadian singers, and John Murrell, an accomplished Canadian playwright.

With each guest offering two choices, we got some great hits. "Parto, Parto", from La Clemenza di Tito and "Non piu andrai" from The Marriage of Figaro, for instance. One that fascinated me was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s performance of Fiordiligi’s "Come scoglio immoto resta" from Cosi Fan Tutti. I heard the great S in recital in the twilight of her career when, for lack of voice, she tried to beguile us with style and elegance. But in this recording she was at the top of her game. Showing tremendous range, her voice plunged like a lightning bolt from the stratosphere to the lower depths. (I never suspected that Ms. S had so much testosterone in her.) Ms. Rogers ended the hour with her choice which, if a trifle contrived, still hit a gracious and charming note: "La Ci Darem La Mano" from Don Giovanni, featuring none other than Mr. Braun and Ms. Bayrakdarian in a yet to be released CD.

My prize in the "thanks-I-wouldn’t-have-thought-of-that" category goes to John Murrell for suggesting Sarastro’s "In diesen heil’gen Hallen" from The Magic Flute. Not a showy, bravura piece but truly outstanding for its profound beauty and nobility. My own suggestion in that category would be Cherubino’s "Voi che sapete" from The Marriage of Figaro, another exquisite jewel. It’s been a favourite of mine ever since a production at Stratford in the 1960s. (Those were the days when Stratford used to produce marvelous operas in the Avon Theatre.) The woman who sang Cherubino was a serious-looking person, with a strong jaw, who could believably have been the teenage male Cherubino. (Wish I could find her name.) When it came to that aria, she simply stood still at centre stage and sang. It was one of those rare and unforgettable moments when the singer becomes the song – it seem to pour out of the essence of her being. Not long afterwards, I saw a production at the renowned Vienna Staatsoper where the Cherubino hammed it up and stamped her feet so much that the beautiful moment of "Voi che sapete" didn’t have a chance. Made me feel very smug about the far superior performance in my beloved Stratford, Ont.

 

Breakfast on Pluto (Movie) directed by Neil Jordan, screenplay by Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe (he was also the novelist).

If you have a long memory, you may recall that I loved the narrative voice of the novel. (For the Dilettante's Diary review, see the very last item on the "Books" page, listed near the bottom of the navigation bar to the left.)  Could a movie do justice to the book without that brash, inimitable voice in your ear all the time? Not quite, it seems. This movie, in any case, smooths out and main-streams the outrageous tone of the book. On the whole, the movie feels kinder and gentler. The grungy sex gets the soft–pedal treatment and some melodramatic stuff is tacked onto the end. Not sure about this, as I don’t have the book handy now, but my memory is that it felt sadder, with a certain acerbic kick.

As for Cillian Murphy, who plays narrator Patrick Braden, a transvestite prostitute from Northern Ireland and the bastard son of a priest, his performance is soft-focus too. While he does fine with the doey eyes and the limp wrists, he conveys little of the piss and vinegar of the character in the book. We get a sort of Juliette Binoche instead of a Sinead O’Connor.

Another problem with the movie is the episodic structure. That can work well enough in a book when the protagonist’s voice casts a spell over you but, lacking that, the movie doesn't have enough plot to pull it forward. The overall theme of the search for Patrick’s mother just doesn’t do it. One episode involving a magician struck me as not only pointless but sadistic.

Still, the movie offers plenty of the charm of these well-made little Brit gems. Lots of fascinating local colour, for instance. And wonderful characters, with top drawer acting in every part from priests and teachers to housewives, cops, thugs and kids. Liam Neeson (as the priest who really is a father) has one of his best roles in a long time. I was particularly struck by Gavin Friday in the small part of Billy Hatchet, a grimy rocker who develops a thing for Patrick. Even the music was fun, with everything from "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?" to a splendid and highly ironic use of Handel’s "Zadok the Priest". The movie opens and closes with a couple of little red-breasted birds chirping about the proceedings, their comments translated in subtitles. I could have used those sub-titles throughout the film to give me a handle on the thick Northern Ireland brogue and the inner-London slang.

Rating C minus (where C = "certainly worth seeing")

 

History of Shit (Social Studies) by Dominique Laporte 1978 (English translation by Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury, 1993)

You may wonder why a nice boy like me would read such a book. Can I simply plead that I thought it might be interesting? I hoped it would enlighten me about attitudes and customs surrounding one of humanity’s least appreciated products. Well, there are a few interesting facts to be gleaned here and there. Urine was once used for cleaning garments. As for some of the uses to which excrement has been put, you don’t want to know what some women did for their complexions. For the most part, though, the book is a muddle of pompous, pseudo-intellectual erudition from some sort of Marxist perspective. For someone of limited brain power, it’s impossible to tell whether or not the whole thing is supposed to be a parody.

But I have an intelligent friend, so I turned the book over to him. Nigel tells me that his commentary on it (below) contains 40 words or expressions – some obvious, some hidden, some puns and some homonyms -- relating to bathroom matters. To help me out, would you please let me know how many you find? You could copy the passage to an email (patrick@dilettantesdiary.com) and underline or highlight the relevant words or phrases. As a token of my gratitude, anyone who finds all of them will receive a year’s free subscription to Dilettante’s Diary. (It’s free anyway, but don’t you think this would be a nice accomplishment to put on your resum?)

Dear Patrick:

An unknown book is always something of a crap shoot and this one smells to high heaven. However, taking the bull by the horns, I gave it considerable time, sweat, toil, etc. It was something of a waste and left me thoroughly pooped. Number one, I found nothing in these scattered droppings to fertilize thought; no insight came after the reading, or during it, for that matter. Number two, only a stool pigeon would attempt to analyze this constipated style. If you think it’s fresh, it isn’t. On the whole, this asinine job shows that the author has far to go as a communicator. This bumptious fellow seems to consider himself quite the pistol but his irregular approach leaves the reader behind. I find his cheek so tiresome. If he wants applause, he can take his bow elsewhere. The gas emitted here could break windows and ignite bunsen burners. He piles the filth on so thick that an attempted movement of it would take a dump truck. If you can like this sort of thing, you’re in trouble. I find the mention of such a book in your diary a disgrace. Why would anyone put such garbage on a website? On reflection, you will surely find that my views are correct....um...well, proper.

Yours, Nigel.

Your response welcome: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com