Dilettante's Diary

July 18/06

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Head to Head
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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: Things My Mother Never Told Me (Memoir/Biography); My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Movie); Morning, Noon and Night (Thriller); Hart's War (Novel); Bel Canto (Novel); Greene on Capri (Memoir/Biography); The Word "Desire" (Short stories); The Saint Pugnacious Parish Hall Bingo Murder Mystery (Theatre); The Analyst (Thriller); Truth and Beauty (Biography/Memoir); No Great Mischief (Novel); England, England (Novel); The Way I Found Her (Novel)

When the movie prospects are dismal and the weather's too hot for brick-laying or weight-lifting, we drag out our book review clippings and order a pile from the library. Surrounded by masses of books, feeling like a kid under the tree on Christmas morning, we dip into them at random. It's fun to see which ones hold our attention and demand immediate finishing, which ones get put aside for later and which ones go back to the library without another look. For the next while, you'll be getting the results of our latest adventures in this endeavour.

 

Things My Mother Never Told Me (Memoir/Biography) by Blake Morrison, 2002

It was a review of this book that drew my attention to Blake Morrison's earlier memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? (My review, one of the earliest in Dilettante's Diary, is on the "Books" page, which is near the bottom of the navigation bar to the left.) This sequel, focussing more on his mother, is based on letters that the young couple, both doctors, sent to each other during their courtship in the Second World War. It’s understandable that Mr. Morrison would find these letters fascinating, given that the faltering romance they record did eventually lead to his existence. The difficulty, though, is that neither parent-to-be is a particularly gifted letter writer. On the whole, the letters consists of trivial chit-chat. Mr. Morrison’s reflections on them don’t help much either. At times, he can be too intense and it’s annoying when he describes a scene and you don’t know whether it’s made up from some slight reference in the letters or whether it’s based on any other evidence: his dad’s lecture to the troops about STD’s for example.

The book has its points, in terms of sociological interest. For instance, there's lots of detail about what daily life was like in Britain during the war – the rationing, the bombing. And the two young doctors' comments on their medical cases can be rather enlightening: they sound more like plumbers or electricians than healers. You're reminded that touch-feely hadn't reached medicine in those days; it was a grim, no-nonsense, quasi-military affair. One note that amused me was the phone operators’ involvement in the lovers’ long distance calls. At best, the sweethearts were subjected to teasing by the unseen chorus, at worst taunting.

About half way through the book, we come to the issue that was keeping this Romeo and Juliet apart – religion. She was a committed Irish Catholic; he was ostensibly Church of England, but really an atheist at heart. The difference in outlooks seemed an insuperable barrier. It’s sobering to be reminded of the virulence of anti-catholic sentiment in those days. The drama of this conflict held my attention all the way to the end of the book.

But what a strange relationship these lovers ended up with. If this were fiction, we would require more explanation to understand their behaviour. Since we’re dealing with real life here, we have to take the facts as they are, with or without satisfactory explanation. You end up agreeing with one of Shakespeare’s characters (who I think put it a little more elegantly): human beings sure are screwed up, aren’t they?

 

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Movie) directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Don Payne, starring Uma Thurman and Luke Wilson.

You should go to at least one silly Hollywood movie every summer. For me, it looked like this would be the one. I’d heard something good about it and I’ve always liked Uma Thurman. Actually, I can’t recall seeing her in anything other than Pulp Fiction but I’ve liked the idea of her since then.

When I arrived at the movie, the previews had started, so the auditorium was dark, but it looked like there was a fairly good crowd for a matinee. That struck me as a good sign. Imagine my dismay, then, when it turned out that the "super" in the title refers to a super hero. In this case, it’s "G-Girl" (Thurman) who zips around Manhattan working wonders with her super powers. I could endure that, if the movie offered something else – some originality or wit or something that had something to do with real life. Instead, we get the usual nerdy boyfriend (Luke Wilson) and his repulsive buddy who is sex obsessed (Rainn Wilson). Of course, there’s a bad guy (Eddie Izzard) after G-Girl. And lots of soaring super-hero music for those flights across the sky.

Apart from Ms. Thurman’s mildly amusing comic style, there’s nothing to watch here. Even I figured out that G-Girl wasn’t really doing all those heroic things. Do they think I don't know a thing or two about computer-generated special effects? I left after about forty-five minutes. On my way out, I realized that nearly all those heads peeking up over the seats belonged to ten and twelve year olds. Maybe the sexual stuff kept them watching.

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

Morning, Noon & Night (Thriller) by Sidney Sheldon, 1995

Your stay at the cottage lasts longer than you expected. You’ve gone through all the books that you brought. You’re forced to turn to the the cottage shelves. There you find the original The Bobsey Twins (seriously!), The Enchanted Garden, the textbook Trigonometry and Statistics and innumerable tomes of science fiction and fantasy. Then there are the thrillers by the likes of Frederick Forsythe, Dick Francis, Ken Follet, et al. After trying a few pages of several of them, you stick with Sidney Sheldon’s story of a fiendish multi-billionaire and his horrible family.

Why? Because it’s so crass and shallow, the people are so venal and scheming, the picture of human nature so corrupt that it’s very entertaining. The writing is hackneyed but serviceable; the plotting is brisk, with lots of ironic twists. A pleasant enough way to pass a few hours if you need something to take your mind off rocks and trees and water.

 
 
 
 

Hart’s War (Novel) by John Katzenbach, 1999

John Katzenbach’s The Analyst made such a good impression on me (see review below, on this page) that I jumped at the chance to read this one. At first, it looked like a typical drama about men in confinement: guys from the Allied Air Forces held in a German POW camp in the Second World War. It struck me that the conflicts were a bit contrived and melodramatic but life in the camp is vividly re-created. Then there’s a murder among the prisoners. The German commandant orders them to conduct their own trial. The identity of the murderer seems obvious but the young Harvard law student assigned to defend him thinks otherwise.

The genius of this book is that we have a murder investigation without any of the forensic expertise that would be available in the outside world and a trial where nobody’s too sure of the rules. Everybody’s more or less winging it. That makes for great suspense. The writing lapses into "best seller" banalities occasionally, and the long wrap-up is extremely sentimental, but I found it a great read. (Glad to say, I missed the 2002 movie based on the book.) An added benefit of the book is that it takes a searing look at racism – from the victim’s point of view. You come to understand exactly how this guy is shaped by the hatred surrounding him. But then the thought strikes: is he exaggerating? That’s never resolved but you sure get a feel for the complexity of the problem.

 

Bel Canto (Novel) by Ann Patchett, 2001

I’d heard a lot about this novel in which a bunch of ragtag rebels in the third world take as hostages a large group of vip’s, including one international opera star (supposedly modelled on Rene Flemming). I liked the author’s imaginative filling in of all the details in the prolonged ordeal but something bothered me. It all sounded "made-up". None of it seemed quite real. Is that a fair criticism? After all, aren’t all novels "made-up"? Maybe if the writing is convincing enough, the question doesn’t occur.

So what’s the problem here? For one thing, I’m a bit tired of the artistic clich wherein the sound of beautiful singing enchants everybody within listening range. I’m as fanatical about opera as the next guy but don’t you think that, in any random sampling of people, there’d be one or two boors who would yell "Tell that broad to shut up, she’s giving me a headache!"? The fact that nobody does – quite the contrary, they’re all spellbound – makes me a little suspicious.

Another problem may be the author’s attempt, as an omniscient narrator, to convey the thoughts of many individuals involved in the hostage-taking. This makes for a desultory quality as she jumps from the mind of the opera singer, to a Japanese businessman, to a rebel leader, to a young camp follower, to the Red Cross guy who acts as negotiator. The fact that you’re not staying with one person very long interferes with the build-up of intensity and urgency.

But I think the more fundamental problem may be inherent in the hostage-taking situation. The hostages are mostly restricted to a passive presence. There’s not much they can do; they simply react to what’s done to them. Only near the end of the book are there a couple of incidents where some of them say, "Ok, here’s what we’re gonna do." I need that kind of narrative pull to keep me reading a book. While admiring the patience of these hostages, I felt my own being tried.

 

Greene On Capri (Memoir/Biography) by Shirley Hazzard, 2000

One day in the 1960s, Graham Greene and a British friend were chatting in a caf on Capri. The two men, having just come from Mass, were discussing the new liturgy’s version of the Kiss of Peace – a handshake with the next person in the pew. Greene was quoting a poem of Robert Browning’s about taking someone’s hand and he couldn’t remember the last line. The novelist Shirley Hazzard, who happened to be sitting at the next table, gave him the line on her way out. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Greene’s death, decades later. During the times when they were all taking their seasonal breaks on the island, Hazzard and her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller used to visit with Greene and whoever was his woman companion of the time. After all the literary analysis and professional biography following Greene’s death, Hazzard felt it was time for a friend’s impressions.

According to Hazzard, he was sexist, chauvinistic, opinionated, rude, bad tempered, miserly (in some ways) and arrogant. He wanted women to be quiet and submissive; he did not appreciate cleverness in them. He had no interest in visual beauty, whether in art or in nature. Music and food didn’t interest him either. He was totally incurious about the island of Capri where he owned a lovely house. He cut anyone who disagreed with him, especially women. In at least one case, he was utterly careless of fact in his historical writing and contemptuous of anyone who tried to correct him. He loved to stir up trouble and goad his dearest friends. Did I mention he had a problem with women?

On the other hand, there were the well-known (now) kindnesses like the cheques and the bottles of wine to Muriel Spark when she was a struggling young writer. Greene could give generously when he felt moved but in a totally ad hoc way; he scorned causes and political movements. Ms. Hazzard does mention one instance when he sent a note of apology after blowing his stack at her. You get the impression of a man whose super-ego was not very quick to spring into action. He simply was what he was and he felt very little compunction about what he should be or how anybody else thought he should behave. He was generally polite to fans who approached him, although journalists tended to put him in a lather. To give him credit, he does not seem to have been conceited about his fame or his literary stature. Apparently, his pomposity came quite naturally.

Can this book be the work of a friend? I think the overall odious impression may be attributable to Ms. Hazzard’s writing style. It’s extremely painstaking and fastidious, lots of commas, looking like it required hours of deliberation to decide just where to place each one. You get the feeling that she’s bending over a microscope, dissecting the man and trying to give just the right weight to each corpuscle of his complicated being. Maybe she’s trying to be scrupulously fair but the attempt backfires. You begin to suspect that she is in awe of her subject, on tenterhooks, afraid of taking a wrong step lest his wrath come pouring down on her. It all sounds so prissy – these sophisticated literati and their erudite discussion over drinks and dinner. The kernels of dialogue that she reports sound like bonbons sneaked out of a secret encounter with royalty. If she’d taken a line like "He could be a bastard at times, but we had fun together," then maybe he would have ended up seeming more tolerable, just another one of us creatures blighted by the human factor.

 

The Word "Desire" (Short Stories) by Rikki Ducornet, 1997

A newspaper mention of this book referred to Rikki Ducornet as one of the best youngish writers in the US. My first foray into this book made me wonder why. Granted the stories are unusual in their exotic settings and their wide range of themes, but several of them are almost completely inaccessible to me. People ramble on in strange accents about obscure incidents in their family or personal histories. (It probably doesn't help that I can't catch the arcane cultural and geographical references.)

But then I started hitting somewhat more familiar territory: people pining for lost lovers, recalling moments of sexual awakening, lost dreams. And the range of voices is truly astonishing. An uptight spinister reveals a surrealist incident in the 1930s and a naive Mexican priest discovers sexual shame. A Parisian lapdog discusses his fondness for Egyptian history and culture. A dying pope makes some kinky demands. In the final story, which gives the collection its title, a woman notices her lover lusting after someone else. She enters his eyes, seeing her rival through him, then she becomes the rival, feeling him lusting after her. This makes a great difference to their relationship afterwards. It’s all about lucency, melting, dissolving and the collapse of time. I read the story carefully – twice – to try to figure out the message. Maybe you just have to go with the flow, but I think it comes down to something like: "Ain’t love grand!"

 

The Saint Pugnacious Parish Hall Bingo Murder Mystery, written by Ken MacDougall and Caroline Smith, directed by Caroline Smith (The Stirling Festival Theatre, Stirling, Ont., until July 22)

This summer we discovered the pretty town of Stirling, about twenty minutes north of Highway 401, between Belleville and Trenton. There, in the midst of the rolling, bucolic countryside, some folks have, by some miracle combining guts, luck and smarts, established a professional theatre company that’s been thriving for ten years.

Currently, they’re offering The Saint Pugnacious Parish Hall Bingo Murder Mystery. That title kinda tells you that we’re not in Stratford, Toto. It would be hard to nail down exactly how this show fits into your university textbook on the history of English Drama. Let’s just say that it's some sort of boffo entertainment that's part play, part panto, part game show and farce, with a bit of minstrel show and revival meeting thrown in. The premise is that we’re attending a big bingo with a jackpot of $1 million from an anonymous donor. This provides the platform for puns, double entendres, clowning, pratfalls and general horsing around. You could say that there’s more corn on stage than in the surrounding fields (except that we’re too sophisticated here to stoop to that kind of humour). The busloads of farmers and their wives packing the hall roar with delight at the shenanigans, especially the topical references to Tweed, Madoc and the yokels "north of Seven".

Director (and co-writer) Caroline Smith keeps things moving at a lively pace, with lots of intesting visual stuff happening. Set Designer Franklin G. Stapley provides a suitably tacky ambiance, including a painting of the haloed "Saint Pug" sporting his boxing gloves. In this church basement, you can smell the sweat, the mould, the smoke and the stale devotion.

Every performance of the show features a different celebrity (mayor, police chief, etc) who draws the first bingo ball and ends up as the murder victim. At the matinee we attended, Charlie Farquharson, a.k.a. Don Harron, did the honours. It did the heart good to see old Charlie up there dishing out yer malapropisms with as much verve as ever now that he’s into his ninth decade.

Much of the success of the show is due to co-author Ken MacDougall who holds the proceedings together as the genial host, Father O’Flaherty. With his considerable charm and wit, he has the audience eating out of his hand within his first two minutes on stage. Then there’s Keith Knight as the loveable goof Clem, the forgetful janitor who keeps wandering into the audience for hugs. And Diane Fabian, a Stirling stalwart, whose bingo-mad Baptist presents an unforgettable mixture of piety and cut-throat competitiveness. Sean Ban Beaton is the very personification of the greaseball wiseguy and Madeleine Donohue (a close relative of ours) gives us Titania Boustinoutova, a Russian bombshell who is hilariously broad in more ways than one. Rhonda Cryan manages to turn her mute role as Agnes, the accompanist, into a small gem of character acting. For me, her accordion playing while dancing, at the beginning of the second act, was the sparkler on top of the icing.

 
 
 

The Analyst (Thriller) by John Katzenbach, 2002

A psychoanalyst receives a letter from somebody who says, "You destroyed my life so I’m going to destroy yours" and proceeds to do so. The first part of this book is so gripping that I wondered if the writer could sustain the tension throughout. Not quite. Which is probably a good thing. It was scary reading this book alone in the house on a summer night with all the windows open. At times, you had to ask how a villain could be so fiendishly clever and manipulative but thrillers are supposed to be contrived, aren’t they? Anyway, this one offers some great twists and surprises. A special pleasure of the book is the treatment of the analyst’s profession. Maybe practitioners in the field would scoff at the fictional representation of their work but, for me, the therapist’s practice and his thoughts about it rang very true.

Just one problem – not a fatal flaw but one that brings the writing down a notch from where it really deserves to be. Mr. Katzenbach seriously overdoes his hero’s autonomic responses. This analyst constantly feels sweat dripping from his arm pits, his heart speeding up, his hands trembling, his mouth going dry. I know all this is about the fight-or-flight business but it happens so often that you begin to think this guy should see a doctor. It’s more effective when a writer uses those touches very sparingly. If a situation confronting the hero is bad enough, I’ll feel it. Better I should notice my own heart pounding than read about his.

 

Truth and Beauty (Biography/Memoir) by Ann Patchett, 2004

By now, everybody knows the general outlines of Ann Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy. As a child, Ms. Grealy, the Irish-born American poet, had cancer and the chemotherapy left her with a badly damaged body, particularly a horribly disfigured face. Constant surgeries didn’t help much, with the result that her odd looks made her an object of scorn, derision, fascination and pity everywhere she went. Her memoir Autobiography of a Face shot her to the top of the US celebrity list briefly. In graduate school, she had roomed with Ms. Patchett, who was to become a distinguished novelist, and for the rest of Ms Grealy’s short life the two women were close buddies and confidantes.

I raced through Ms. Patchett’s easy-to-read account of the friendship. Ms. Patchett tells it in roughly chronological order but she drops in excerpts from Ms. Grealy’s letters in no particular sequence, which gives this book a casual, conversational feel. Thankfully, she under-plays the "triumph-over-tragedy" aspect of Ms. Grealy’s heroic struggle against staggering odds. In fact, the two women used to go into hysterical laughter at the mention of that theme. And it was interesting to find out how these two would-be writers navigated the shoals of the US literary grants system, while taking on stints of teaching, until they made it big.

But I wish Ms. Patchett had dug deeper into some aspects of the story. I don’t get all the crying and hugging and kissing and sleeping together of these two girlfriends. Not that I’m suspicious or anything, just that I’ve never known two contemporary females in our culture who related that way. Was it something about Lucy Grealy that brought out such lavish displays of affection? And I would have liked more analysis of Ms. Grealy’s extraordinary character and her problems. For instance, her affinity for hospitals. It’s obvious why she should feel at home in them but I wish Ms. Patchett had asked why so many people look to doctors for everything that’s lacking in their lives. And then there’s the futility of trying to substitute promiscuity for love. That’s the obvious moral of this story. But I guess you don’t want to preach sermons with your friend as an object lesson, even if you’re writing a book about her.

 

No Great Mischief (Novel) by Alistair MacLeod, 1999

Books that arrive in the world with great fanfare usually land in a spot far down on my "to read" list. I like to wait till the hoop-la cools down so that I can assess these books in calm tranquility. (Also, you usually can’t get them from the library for years.) The huzzah that greeted this book made it sound like the best thing that ever happened to Canadian literature. As I remembered it, the book won just about every major prize going. (The cover blurb seems to indicate that the book actually won about six.) But then I heard Mr. MacLeod reading from the book on the radio. The passage struck me as an intriguing piece of story-telling, so I made a note to myself that maybe this book would be worth looking into after all.

The excerpt read on the radio began with a statement something like: "My sister and I went to visit our grandparents overnight and ended up staying ten years." That section of the book and several others relating to it are wonderful. The best thing about the book is Mr. MacLeod’s genius for setting a place, giving you the feel of life in another time. I loved all the stuff about the lifestyle of the Scots in Cape Breton. Often, it was the scenes with music that pleased me: the old folks singing in the kitchens, the young bucks singing to the whales from their fishing boats. Not to mention the unforgettable scene of the impromptu music-making at the mine near Sudbury where some of the lads were working. I would have loved a whole book about the strange life of those older brothers of the narrator.

But there are long passages in the book that did nothing for me. Sections where people sit around reminiscing about the famous exploits of the Scots warriors. No drama, no tension. The dialogue goes flat. With just three of four exceptions, characterization is slight. The several brothers are indistinguishable except for the eldest and his distinctiveness comes largely in retrospect from his pathetic final days. A sister who is said to be an actress and who lives near Calgary has no character at all. Her purpose is only to serve as the narrator’s reminiscing partner. And then there’s the narrator’s frequent harking back to a scene of tomato harvesting in the fields around Leamington, Ontario. The writing of the scene is evocative but what it has to do with the main story completely escapes me.

It’s possible that I am a little too deficient in Scots genes to be totally caught up in the excitement about this book. Which raises the question: if Mr. MacLeod wanted a really great book why didn’t he write about Irish settlers?

 

England, England (Novel) by Julian Barnes, 1998

I think of Julian Barnes as one of those smart-ass Brit writers (cf Martin Amis) whose books are usually worth a look. A quick skim of the first few pages of this book confirmed that. (Besides, it was nominated for the Booker prize.) Martha, a young woman, is reminiscing about her childhood in a country village. For about twenty pages, we get very sensitive memories, culminating in the incident that marked her life with sadness. Then, suddenly there’s a shift of focus to a bombastic tycoon who has some outlandish scheme to promote tourism. The change of tone is so abrupt, the carryings-on so outrageous, that it’s hard to see how we can be in the same novel. After about twenty pages, it turns out that Martha, from the first part, is going to be working for the tycoon.

To be honest, I did not read this book very carefully. I kept skimming over all the entrepreneurial nonsense to find the very interesting sections about Martha and her private life. Occasionally, my eyes strayed to some of the other material and I gradually began to see that there was some hilarious stuff going on: high-spirited satire of British culture and politics, history, royalty, sex, religion, folklore, media and philosophy, for starters. Mr. Barnes  flings the language around with great panache too. No doubt you have to be British to get the full effect. But I weary of fiction where the emphasis is on the writer’s cleverness rather than on the real-ness of the characters. There’s a cold, detached quality that reminds me of some other British writers like Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark in their more satirical moods. I hop-scotched to the end of the book to find out what happens to Martha even though the hijinks had pretty well sabotaged my feelings for her as a person.

 

The Way I Found Her (Novel) by Rose Tremain, 1997

A mediocre book by an established and respected author can be fascinating. The fact is, most of the books that come my way are damn good. A reader can begin to take the product for granted, to think a writer can pull it off every time. When you find out that they can’t, you respect the process a little more. And an examination of the failure can sometimes give you some clue as to how the magic works when it does.

Rose Tremain’s books have won lots of prizes. Her Restoration was short-listed for the Booker and made into a well-known movie. In this novel, she takes on the voice of a thirteen-year-old English lad as narrator. He and his mom are staying with a voluptuous Russian woman in Paris for the summer. The British mom is translating the Russian woman’s mediaeval romance novels into English. The boy potters about the Russian’s apartment, snooping into dresser drawers and computers, when not finding his way around Paris and walking the novelist’s dog. A disappearance mystery evolves and the boy determines to solve it.

I was a bit skeptical about a middle-aged female writer’s ability to convey the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy, especially when it comes to sex, but I was willing to suspend judgement on that. About half way through the 359 pages, though, it became obvious that this novel wasn’t working for me. I jumped ahead to see if the ending made the whole thing worthwhile. Not as far as I could see.

One of the problems, I think, is the use of the boy as narrator. He doesn’t have a lot of life experience to drawn on, so he simply follows his nose. This gives a plodding feel to the proceedings: "I did this. Then I did that. And next I will do such and such." The second problem may be a consequence of this, or it may be a separate issue all together. There seems to be no passion driving this book. There is no feeling that the author had a story that simply had to be told. It feels like a story constructed bit by bit, somewhat laboriously, stringing us along, as if the author doesn’t have anything compelling to say. A decent enough job, I suppose, and maybe some readers would be entertained, but I have better ways to waste a couple of days in summer.

 
 

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