At Mrs. Lippincote’s (Novel) by Elizabeth Taylor, 1945
What a thrill to find new editions of the works of the great Elizabeth Taylor. (No, not that Elizabeth Taylor.)
I enjoyed Ms. Taylor's novels tremendously when I first discovered them about twenty years ago. It was quite
a blow to discover soon afterwards that they were no longer available for loan at the library.So I pounced on this re-issue
when it appeared on the "New and Recommended" shelf. Alas, it's a paperback edition, so it’s not going to withstand
very much pouncing. You’d better get your turn asap.
What do I remember about my first readings of Ms. Taylor’s novels? Not a lot, except that they were quiet, contemplative,
beautifully written. Near the beginning of one of them came a paragraph about somebody’s impressions while waiting at
a rural rail station in the summer – it struck me then as the most perfect paragraph ever written. Let’s hope
I can find it in one of the re-issues.
At Mrs. Lippincote’s is not quite as exquisitely-crafted as I remember others of Ms. Taylor’s books. The
narrative structure is a little jumpy. That could be because this one was Ms. Taylor’s first published novel. It tells
the story of a young family staying in a rented house in some small English town during the war so that the husband can be
near his RAF unit. Mostly, the novel focuses on his wife Julia, the mother of their ten-year-old boy, Oliver. In a
way, nothing much seems to happen. Visiting with people who drop in. Tending the child’s illnesses. Hosting the important
locals. On first impression, you might think it’s a tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches kind of British novel.
But there is a subversive humour under the surface. It’s so subtle that you could almost miss it. I don’t remember
that ironic tone from previous readings of Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe I was too callow to notice. To her husband’s dismay,
Julia somehow doesn’t quite fit into the role of the typical military wife. Nothing terribly radical or rebellious
about her, just that she can’t help seeing the absurdity of a lot of conventions.
What’s more, Julia seems to be a fore-runner of the women’s movement. There is a vague sense that something
is wrong with her life as the housewife. There’s even talk about local feminists – which surprises me, since I
didn’t think that term came into use before the 1960s and 70s. Mind you, the term, as used here, seems to be applied
mainly to women who hang around Communist and Marxist groups. I suppose that was something you had to be wary of in the 1930s
and 40s – the possibility that one of your dear ones might get involved with such disreputable elements!
In its quiet way, the book ends up turning the conventions of the "nice novel" upside down. It all happens so calmly and
with such good manners that you’re not even sure what hit you. In retrospect, though, you can see that Ms. Taylor was
trying to warn you that she had something up her sleeve. She makes frequent references to other writers about women’s
issues like Virginia Woolf and the Brontë sisters. There’s even a pointed mention
of Norah from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It could be that, in 1945, Ms. Taylor was trying to hint that
undersea earthquakes were happening. And that people better get ready for the tsunami.
Paula Spencer (Novel) by Roddy Doyle, 2006
Paula Spencer is trying not to drink. Oh, she’s doing lots of other things – looking after her family, cleaning
houses, gabbing with her sisters, her neighbours. But the main thing is her struggle to kick the booze. At the start of the
book, she’s been off it for a few months. She’s tormented with guilt about the effect of her drinking on her kids
but she’s trying to get back on track.
It’s a grim struggle. The mordant Irish humour is there, but it doesn’t exactly burble up through the harsh
realities. Roddy Doyle’s staccato style – short, sharp sentences – doesn’t make them any less tough.
But what he does – phenomenally, in my opinion – is recreate the inner life of a person with all the contradictions,
whims and ambiguities. Paula will be walking along congratulating herself on how well she’s doing, how much she loves
everybody, then she’ll suddenly pull the rug out from under herself with a comment like, "What a load of shite!" I think
this is more or less what the inner monologues is like for all of us – if we have the honesty to admit it – but
I’ve seldom seen it so well reflected in literature.
For someone like me who grew up thinking of Holy Ireland as an enchanted place set apart, it’s startling to be minded
that, these days, it’s not about priests and nuns and saints’ days and going to mass. Roddy Doyle’s Ireland
is about pierced navels and drugs and rock concerts, computers and cell phones and text messaging. Most of the women here,
like the salty-tongued ones he introduced us to decades ago, wouldn’t know a rosary if they tripped over one. Their
conversation is sprinkled with "f’s", instead of "Hail Mary’s".
Mr. Doyle’s idiosyncratic way of punctuating dialogue – no quotation marks, just dashes – can make it
a bit difficult to sort out what’s being said by whom, at times. But I think it may reflect the reality of human speech
better than the somewhat more intrusive, more artificial methods of punctuation. Characters discuss the most meaningful things
in conversations that are barely more than inchoate phrases, fragments of sentences sprinkled with banalities. It’s
all very inconclusive and unsatisfying. But isn’t that the way with the most important things in our lives? It's not
rhetoric that moves you the most; it's the truth muttered in in the simplest ways.
I have only one question about the book. Paula occasionally says things that sound like they’ve been picked up from
one of the 12-step recovery programs or some such approach. Yet, there’s no mention of her belonging to any kind of
group or even reading anything about recovery. Is she forging an entirely individual and private path to sobriety? Is that
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Novel) by Marina Lewycka, 2005
On hearing about the huge international success of this little book, my first thought was: the masses must have got it
right this time. I mean, who could not love a book with that title? Any writer who could give her novel such a name must have
a great sense of humour, right? The book would have to be charming. And surely, it isn’t really about tractors, is it?
Well, to a very slight degree it is. The old man at the centre of the story, a Ukrainian widower living in England, is
working on a history of tractors. The writing project is a sort of hobby for his old age. But the main story concerns his
love affair with a young blonde from the Ukraine who apparently wants to marry him. The old guy’s two daughters vehemently
oppose the union. They figure young blonde’s out to fleece their dad and the marriage is just a shortcut to British
You’d think that premise would make for a great novel. But this one never gets beyond the level of the trite and
the superficial. Practically every chapter starts with a phone call from the father. This brings the daughters rushing into
the fray. Things settle down for a while – until the next flare-up. Back and forth they go, just a series of episodes,
one after the other. There’s no build-up of momentum, no sense of mounting consequences. One slightly interesting development,
about three-quarters of the way through, got my hopes up but even that didn’t amount to much. The so-called plot eventually
peters out in a completely unimaginative way.
None of which would matter if the characters were convincing or amusing. Apart from the old man, whose strange way with
the English language hints at a rather odd personality, there’s nobody worth listening to in this book. The women scream
at each other and hurl insults, not like living people, but like characters in an amateurishly written story trying to make
something of themselves. I can’t recall whether any hair-pulling occurs but it feels as though it does.
And yet, I kept thinking that the story of these Ukrainian immigrants in Britain could be really interesting. It had never
occurred to me before to wonder what life would be like for people in their situation. The glimpses of the horrors they’d
endured in the past were intriguing. But all I was getting was a lot of slapstick – minor calamities described with
tasteless detail and predictable cliché.
So why did I keep reading to the end? I kept thinking that maybe something would click in, that I would finally "get it".
After all, you want to give an author a fair chance, especially a new author you’ve never heard of. I kept hoping to
discover why so many people around the world have loved this book. I wanted to be one of them. It’s not fun being alone
and out in the cold. Which is where I remain, as far as this book is concerned.
The Diviners (Novel) by Rick Moody, 2005
Remember my summer experiment with library books? (See Dilettante’s Diary, July 18/06.) Here’s the deal: I
bring home a pile, start looking through them and see which ones rise to the top of my priority list. This summer, The
Diviners sank further every time I looked at it – and not just because of the weight of its 567 pages. By the time
my renewals ran out and the library demanded the book's return, I’d only made it to page 176.
Still, if you want to be up on contemporary American literature, you have to get with Rick Moody. So I resolved to try
the book again some time. And now my second loan of it is about to run out. This time, I can honestly say that I persevered
to the end.
At the centre of the book is a movie script for a saga that goes way back in time – as far as Atilla the Hun. The
script traces the history of some people who can find water by dowsing. If I sound a bit vague here, it’s because I
never could plough through the several summaries of the script, each running for many pages. I found the belaboured third-person
narrative of those sections unreadable.
Most of the novel, however, has to do with people involved in some way or another in the fate of the script.
The first person we meet is an elderly alcoholic woman. It turns out her daughter runs the agency that will try to market
the script. A taxi driver who brings the daughter to work gets roped in. Then there are bicycle couriers. The staff in the
agency office. We go to California for a look at the movie crowd there. One chapter tells about the adventures in cosmetic
surgery of somebody’s wife. Somehow, a rich Mennonite comes into it. Roughly half the chapters start with brand new
characters. Sometimes you’re many pages into the chapter before you have any inkling of how these new people connect
to the rest of the story.
I guess it’s supposed to be a panoply of America today, a cross-section of US society, or something like that. And
I think it’s meant to be hilarious – satire, if you will. For me, the joke is far too complicated, too elaborate
to be amusing. It’s as if we’re being invited into the funhouse of Mr. Moody’s brain, where he spins crazy
stories endlessly to his own satisfaction – whether or not they please his guests.
If he cares about our response at all, it could just be that he wants to impress us with his literary panache. The book
opens with ten pages of breathless description of the morning sun as it lights up each place on the revolving earth. The entire
passage seems to me not so much a meaningful communication to readers as a response to a creative writing assignment: "Class,
I want you to write an essay about the sunrise and there will be a prize for the boy or girl who can think of the most things
to say!" Many different writing styles and tones of voice are used in the various chapters. The erudition and encyclopaedic
knowledge are stunning. Is it unfair of me to think that this kind of writing is mostly about the author showing off? Maybe
this is just a different kind of writing from the kind that I prefer, i.e. writing where the author’s skill is all the
more appreciated for not being so ostentatious.
You might be able to enjoy this book if you can disregard your longing for a well-constructed, sensible story and just
go with the flow. Parts of it are brilliant. In one section, Mr. Moody describes a group of airheads communicating on their
cellphones. They’re competing with each other to see who is the coolest. It seems to me that he captures the vacuity
and unintentional comedy of that scene perfectly. A chapter told from the skewed point of view of a woman coming out of a
coma is fascinating. With sympathy and understanding, Mr. Moody conveys a preacher’s pragmatic way of coping with his
loss of faith. For me, though, the pleasures of the book counted for much less, in the end, than the long stretches of annoying
The Magic Flute (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by James Levine, live from the Metropolitan
Opera to theatre screens, December 30.
Presumably, this HD broadcast straight from the stage of the Met to screens in theatres is meant to win
a wider audience for opera. I’m all for that. So it seemed fitting to give the Met my support on this occasion. Besides,
I felt sure they would want to know what I thought of the venture.
Well, I needn’t have worried about the Met needing my support. On arriving at the theatre half an hour early, I found
about three-quarters of the seats already occupied for what would turn out to be – at this locale, at least –
a sold out performance. For a few minutes, we were treated to an on-screen control panel with instructions along the lines
of: "testing switches" and "please stand by for signal" and "thank you for your patience". Not very a encouraging prospect.
Rather like sitting in the space shuttle waiting for lift-off and hearing somebody ask for a match to light the rockets. But
eventually the technical instructions left the screen and there – like magic – appeared a picture of the Met auditorium
which was filling up, just like the theatre we were sitting in (a little more glamorous, though). Soon we could also hear
the orchestra tuning up.
I was wondering how they’d fill the time taken by host Margaret Juntwait’s intro on the radio broadcast of
the performance. Would we see her on screen? No. First we got a welcoming message from the Met’s general manager Peter
Gelb, then a nice lady took us backstage for a quick look: performers receiving help with final adjustments to their costumes,
stagehands rushing around, huge props and set pieces looming in the cavernous upper reaches of the wings. This backstage tour
continued through the overture.
Once the performance started, it became obvious that the star of the show was designer Julie Taymor. Which is not to fault
any of the singers: Matthew Polenzani (Tamino), Ying Huang (Pamina), Erika Miklósa (Queen
of the Night), René Pape (Sarastro), Greg Fedderly (Monostatos), David Pittsinger (Speaker).
This is the one case in which you could truly say that it was impossible to single out any one of the members of a cast. Without
exception, their singing was superb. In fact, it was as uniformly flawless as the singing of any opera I’ve heard anywhere,
But the thing you couldn’t stop marvelling at was the design of the production. This Magic Flute looks like
The Mikado transplanted to some sci-fi futuristic setting, possibly in a video arcade, with an arctic theme involving
ice sculptures and enormous, scary-looking cylinders like turbines. Contrasting with the high tech aspects of the set are
the huge animal puppets on sticks manipulated by performers in black. The puppets are made of some billowing, silky material
which really makes them look like dream apparitions.
The production is so complicated that I really think the stage manager should have taken a bow. It seemed to me that it
would be a super-human job to call the cues for the malestrom of activity on stage. And I’m wondering if the performers
received danger pay for all the tricky business they had to execute. Timing their moves to land on an elevator at just the
right moment. Or trying to stand straight and majestic while you’re being wheeled onstage. Not to mention all the goings-on
that could distract from your singing. The Queen of the Night sang with huge wings attached to her and a panoply of cloth
sails waving in geometric patterns behind her and appearing to be part of her paraphernalia (although manipulated,
again, by those black-clad performers). Extreme as it all was, I can’t help thinking Mozart would have been thrilled.
This production – sung in English – was shortened to just under two hours. I couldn’t figure out what
had been cut, apart from the intermission. Come to think of it, though, Tamino’s aria to the portrait of Pamina seemed
a bit brief. As for the English, it helped make the goofy plot a little more coherent for me but I prefer the German libretto.
It’s not that I can claim to understand a lot of it; I think it sounds much better and I enjoy trying to figure it out.
Perhaps any translation of this material would sound corny, but this one was charmless at best and stupid at other times.
Besides, it’s a little disconcerting to hear a Sorastro who speaks English like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
So much for the production. What about the experience of the broadcast? Well, it was like watching an opera on a DVD, with
two important differences. You had to be glad for the big screen in the theatre. No tv screen at home – no matter how
expensive – could have captured the awesome effects. And the other big difference from a DVD was that this was live.
No chance for re-takes or dubbing. They were doing it all right now, in real time. If they flubbed it, they’d go down
in flames for all to see. But nobody did.
Which made me a little sad that I couldn’t express my enthusiasm to the performers. Maybe that was the one drawback
to the experience – the fact that we weren’t there with them. That didn’t stop lots of people in the movie
theatre from clapping, especially at the curtain calls. Me, I sat on my hands. I mean, applause seemed kind of pointless to
me. It’s not as if the performers could have heard us, could they? On the other hand maybe they’d have picked
up the vibes over in Manhattan. Maybe I should have whooped it up a bit.
One suggestion. Remember how they used to have separate smoking sections in movie theatres? Thank goodness there’s
no call for that nowadays. However, I think there should be a separate section for the popcorn eaters. Far be it for me to
discourage the whole family from enjoying themselves to the full at the opera. It’s just that the crunch-munch doesn’t
seem to me like a really helpful addition to Mozart’s creation.
Dreamgirls (Movie) directed by Bill Condon, written by Bill Condon and Tom Eyen, starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Keith Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, et al.
Being a sucker for any showbiz story, I thought this one might be worth a try even though this kind of showbiz isn’t
really my thing. As most of us know, this is a thinly disguised bio about a pop group like the Supremes. In spite of that
historical basis, you realize early on, that this movie doesn’t have much to do with real life. The show’s the
thing here. Instead of well-written scenes you get long stretches of music with little connecting bits of dialogue. And,
of course, frequent use of the old device of the montage, whether it be to show the rise to fame, the passage of time, the
rehearsal/recording process or a payola scheme.
Still, I was impressed with many of the performances. Jamie Foxx manages a smooth transition from one end of the likeability
scale to the other. Beyoncé Knowles shows that she’s not just a sex goddess on subway
posters. Jennifer Hudson’s inexperience as an actress shows occasionally – just a little – but her singing
is nothing short of stupendous. Keith Robinson turns out to have a very appealing screen presence as a young black actor.
As an audience member of the older generation said of Mr. Robinson on the way out of the theatre, "The new Sidney
But haven’t we seen this story many times before: the meteoric rise to fame, the discovery that it ain’t a
bed of roses when you get there, the drugs, the mob, the hard-headed decisions when business comes before people, love found
and lost along the way? Well, yes, but this take on the old theme offers something more – a look at the person who is
left behind. Usually that person disappears from the screen with just a whimper as stars rise higher and shine brighter. Here,
though, we get a compassionate and very touching look at the one who is sacrificed to the great god of ambition.
The big surprise about this movie – for me – is that I enjoyed nearly all the music. Being so unfamiliar with
this kind of pop culture, I couldn’t even say for sure what genre it was but I think it included rhythm and blues, disco,
a bit of gospel and a touch of rap. Even the dancing and the over-the-top production values on the big numbers really impressed
me, a person who is pretty resistant to that stuff most of the time.
However, the parts of the movie that had me down on the floor pleading for mercy were the scenes where characters break
into song in the middle of a sentence and the scene continues in some sort of musical form. This can be effective in the hands
of Guiseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini. But I do not think it is a good idea to take very banal, very bad dialogue, to set it
to some sort of tuneless music and to back it up with a shlocky score that prolongs the agony for, in some cases, at least
ten minutes. Why would film-makers do that? Are audiences supposed to like this pretend opera? I suppose producers think that
they do. But I do not think it can be good for people to be exposed to such crap. I found sitting through it torture. If it
weren’t for those scenes, I would have given this movie a higher rating.
Rating: C minus (Where "C" = "Certainly worth seeing")
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Memoir) by Bill Bryson, 2006
I used to think "to die laughing" was just an expression. But one time when I was reading one of Edna O’Brien’s
early books about the shenanigans among young women in a small Irish town, I was laughing so much that I couldn’t
get my breath. With every sentence, my distress got worse. I began to think: if this writer doesn’t let up, I am going
to suffocate and my family will have grounds for suing her. It next happened when I was taking a look at Cornelia Otis Skinner’s
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.
And now Bill Bryson has done it to me several times with this memoir about growing up in the 1950s in Des Moines, Iowa.
One of the bits that nearly finished me was a passage about an old lady on young Bryson’s paper route. Even my trying
to tell somebody about that one brought on dangerous spasms. For some reason, though, the parts of the story that most often
brought me close to extinction had to do with food. Like his descriptions of the delicacies on offer at a church supper or
a country fair. But mostly the recalling of his mother’s haphazard way with meals (among other things).
If you think it’s sacrilegious of a writer to speak thus of his mother, don’t worry. He follows up his attack
on her culinary prowess with this golden passage: "Everybody in the world adored my mother. She was entirely without suspicion
or malice. She never raised her voice or said no to any request, never said a word against another human being. She liked
everybody. She lived to make sandwiches. She wanted everyone to be happy. And she took me almost every week to dinner and
the movies." If I was a mother who received a paean of praise like that from my kid, I could put up with a few unkind cuts
about my cooking.
Hilarious and touching as Mr. Bryson’s childhood memories are, this book is much more than a personal memoir. Clearly,
he has done a lot of research in magazines and newspaper files to come up with fascinating detail about the times. What results
is nothing less than a deconstruction of life in America in the 1950s. Mr. Bryson makes nearly everything we did then look
ridiculous: the clothes, the movies, the cars, the television, the food, the education. It makes you wonder what some
future humourist who is now suffering through elementary school will have to say about the fads and the accepted wisdoms of
Apart from the purely humourous riffs, there is another tone to the book. In some chapters, Mr. Bryson talks about the
terrible injustices caused by racism. Or the anti-communist witch hunts. Or the medical ignorance and the cavalier attitudes
to matters of safety. Some of the incidents he dredges up are quite shocking, even today. Gradually you begin to get the message
that life in the 1950s wasn’t just one big laugh. The sarcasm and the satire are still there in the writing but they’re
fuelled by a healthy dose of anger.
Towards the end of the book, Mr. Bryson dishes up pranks and misdemeanours from his early teen years when he and his pals
got into some pretty unpleasant stuff. One of the guys was a confirmed alcoholic by age sixteen. At this point, Mr. Bryson
begins to seem a lot less likeable. It’s not that I’m being judgmental (I hope). It's just that I can’t
decide what to make of him. That's the problem with lots of people in real life. But I read books to get away from
ambiguity. It doesn’t matter whether or not I like the person I'm reading about. I just have to know for sure. The unforgiveable
sin is for an author to leave me confused.
On Chesil Beach (Short Story) by Ian McEwan (The New Yorker, Dec 25/06-Jan 1/06)
We don't discuss short stories here, except for really amazing ones. In this piece, Ian McEwan gives us a young couple
on their wedding night early in the 1960s. You've got to understand that this was a time when lots of newly weds were virgins.
What's more, people didn't talk about their attitudes to sex in those days. So here we have the young people toying
with dinner in their hotel suite but preoccupied with thoughts about the upcoming event in the adjoining bedroom.
The swing back and forth between their constrasting thoughts is like an aerial acrobatic act where you're never sure
if the partners are going to connect with each other or crash land. If, as with previous Ian McEwan pieces
in the New Yorker, this turns out to be part of a novel coming out soon, I'm getting in line outside my local bookstore
Pinocchio (Pantomime) written and directed by Caroline Smith, Stirling Festival Theatre, Stirling, Ontario,
until December 31.
When I was a kid we constantly mis-used the word pantomime. We confused it with mime. But pantomime,
properly understood, has nothing to do with Marcel Marceau and his ilk. Pantomime is a British theatre tradition that takes
place around Christmas. I’m told the genre goes back as far as Shakespeare’s day. When the regular shows shut
down over the holiday season, the actors from various companies got together and put on some sort of hilarious show
that was a hodge–podge of different styles, based on one of the classic fairy tales or legends.
If you want to see a living, breathing example of Panto exactly as it should be, jump in your car and hurry off to Stirling,
Ontario, a few minutes north of the Highway 401, between Trenton and Belleville. The Stirling Festival Theatre, a small professional
company that’s been thriving for the past ten years, has made the Christmas Panto a highlight of the entertainment year
in that part of the country. This year’s production of Pinocchio contains all the required elements of the beloved
genre: the timeless story, song and dance, a man in drag playing the "Dame", lots of topical references and political jibes,
endless strings of puns and hijinks, and routines – like one about money and arithmetic – that sound like they’re
borrowed from Abbott and Costello at their zaniest.
This show owes much of its success to Ken MacDougall, as Geppetto. His ad-libs and asides cast that particular spell that
binds an audience into a one great big ready-to-laugh entity. Michael Strathmore brings loads of boyish charm and innocence
to the title role. It was interesting to watch Cyrus Lane make a very skillful switch from his drag role as the Widow Cappuccino
to the very different part of the scuzzy magician Stromboli. Debbie Collins (Jiminy Cricket) and JP Baldwin (the evil landlord
Honest John Fooulfellow) showed impressive vaudeville and music hall technique. André
Morin, a co-op student,acquits himself very well in the largely mute role of Gideon. Madeleine Donohue (a close relative of
ours), in the role of Figaro the cat, has more feline qualities than one suspected. At one point in the show, her appearances
as three different dolls, with less than 30 seconds for complete costume changes between them, probably left many audience
members unaware that they were looking at the same actor.
On the day that we attended the show, Christina Gordon, who plays the Blue Fairy, had unfortunately been felled by a flu
and director/writer Caroline Smith gamely stepped into the role. Ms. Smith handled the part with great aplomb and humour.
The occasional flubbed line only added to the fun.
Apparently, Ms. Gordon’s absence, meant that some production numbers had to be cut. You’d never have known.
The singing and dancing are some of the best things about the show. As far as I could tell, most of the songs are borrowed
from other shows or groups (with changed lyrics). Musical director Wayne Gillim does a great job of integrating them into
this show and providing very agreeable harmonies for the singers.
The afternoon performance is known as the "Family" show and in the evening comes the "Naughty" version. In the early years
of the Stirling Panto, the ad-libs were getting more and more raunchy, with the result that the theatre management decided
to offer two quite distinct shows. The evening show presents pretty much the same story but with skimpy costumes, as many
double entendres as possible, lots of innuendo and sometimes more than innuendo. But nothing to bring on Stirling’s
morality police with sirens blazing. (In fact, nothing even to make performers' close relatives cringe.) Which is
a good thing because, judging from the uproarious response of the sold-out crowd at the evening show, the citizenry for miles
around are hungry for this kind of thing and they’d lynch any prudes who tried to take it from them.