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Aug 23/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. Reviews added later will appear at the top of the page while the less recent reviews will move further down.
 
Reviewed here: Funny People (Movie); Flame & Citron (Movie); The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Mystery); The Order of Good Cheer (Novel); Echo Park (Mystery); In Patagonia (Travel)

Funny People (Movie) written and directed by Judd Apatow; starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann; with Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Torsten Voges and Aubrey Plaza.

If you wanna do a movie about the lives and careers of comedians, you run the risk of exposing some pretty dreary stuff about the business of trying to be funny. The way those people go about coming up with their material is about as amusing as open heart surgery. None of them ever laughs. They just keep saying, in a clinical way, "That’s funny" or maybe even, "That’s very funny."

Then, when you see them performing on stage, there’s all this fake laughter from audiences (i.e. movie extras) at stuff that really isn’t working for you anymore because you’ve watched the comedians slaving over the writing of it. We know when we see comedy on stage or in a movie that the fun isn’t happening on the spur of the moment but we want to believe it is. That’s impossible when you’ve been party to the creation of it, as in this movie.

And what’s with the preponderance of jokes about male genitals? Not just in the onstage routines but in the offstage banter too. Hardly a scene goes by without crude references to penises and balls. In a way, it’s more obscene than what you get in porn movies (from what they tell me.) Porn more or less takes the genitals for granted, at least as far as verbalizing goes. But the guys in Funny People can’t stop referring to each other’s equipment. Is writer-director Judd Apatow trying to tell us that young men today are obsessed with their reproductive organs? That would be the interpretation that would credit the writing with a certain sophistication. The simpler explanation might be that this is where the relaxation of standards of decency have led us: let’s see how verbally gross we can get about cocks!

All of which doesn’t make – at the outset, at least – for very good prospects for the movie. None of the characters seems real or likeable. Seth Rogen plays Ira, who works in a deli by day but hopes to make it as a standup comedian. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman play his obnoxious and unpleasant roommates, also hopeful performers. A scene where Ira’s trying to persuade a reluctant co-worker at the deli to catch his gig that night trots out laboured, uninspired expository dialogue. Besides, Ira can’t be as much of a loser as his co-worker thinks; we know we’re dealing with Seth Rogen, after all.

Adam Sandler knows too. He plays George, an extremely wealthy and famous comedian who has made his fortune in revolting kids’ movies featuring him with his adult head on a baby’s body. Finding out that he has a potentially fatal disease akin to leukemia, George returns to his old stomping grounds on the club circuit where he encounters struggling young Ira. Spotting Ira’s potential, George hires him to write jokes and act as a personal assistant.

In their first telephone conversation, George orders Ira not to use current expressions like "It’s all good" and "I’m chillin’." This viewer, also being a curmudgeon who quickly tires of hip jargon, began to think maybe there was something to like about George. That was confirmed when he was discussing his remarkable sexual history. Women want to have sex with a famous man, George tells Ira. "But they always leave here very disappointed." Now this George was somebody worth paying attention to.

The teamwork between Mr. Sandler and Mr. Rogen, as they ramble around in George’s opulent mansion, works beautifully. The flavour of the relationship comes in George’s line: "You’re my best friend and I don’t even like you." George gets to be sardonic, cynical, even mean at times; yet he sees the truth about other people and himself and he’s not afraid to admit it. The movie neatly steps around the life-at-the-top-is-lonely clich because George knows that his isolation, his barrenness are his own fault. Mr. Sandler’s acting has, apparently come a long way since the goofball movies that launched his career (I’ve never seen them) but I wasn’t sure that he quite pulled off the more soulful scenes – the ones where he faces the world alone after hearing the bad news from his doctor. He tends to be more reliable in the sarcastic mode.

Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s ingenuous teddy bear looks all the better for the contrast with the Sandler character. This role is a great fit for Seth Rogen, a full recovery from his appearance in the misconceived Observe and Report. For the first while, Ira’s the only person, other than the doctors, who knows George’s dire prognosis. In a restaurant scene where Ira breaks down and starts blubbing about George’s fate, the tears and the snot may not be entirely convincing but the scene is great fun.

About two-thirds of the way through, though, something goes wrong with the movie. I’m not sure what. But I can make a few guesses. The length, for one thing. Two hours and twenty-six minutes seems too long, given the light tone. Unless you want more existential angst.

And maybe that’s another problem. A fatal disease for the main character isn’t exactly original for today’s movies but it's tolerable if handled well. The way this one ends up feels pretty hokey. (You appreciate that we can’t say any more without breaking our promise to reveal only minimal plot details.) George seems to have made a decision to go public with his bad news. Various celebrities (Eminem, Ray Romano and others) start showing up to commiserate with him. At least, I think that’s what’s going on. It wasn’t exactly clear how this transpired. The narrative flow goes wonky here. It probably helps if you’re familiar with the celebs but most of them were unknown to me.

Then Leslie Mann turns up as the woman who got away, the one with whom George might have settled down and raised a family. At first, she strikes a strong note of feminine empathy but she comes off as something of a twit, in the end. Eric Bana as her Aussie husband is entertaining in his awfulness. Questions of whether or not George is really sick add to the confusion and I’m not sure what the Seth Rogen character’s role at this point is supposed to be, apart from babysitting the lady’s kids.

In other roles, I enjoyed Torsten Voges as a Swedish doctor, deftly deflecting the witticisms about his accent from the Rogen and Sandler characters. Aubrey Plaza also makes a memorable impression, as a very contemporary young woman: blunt, bold, in-your-face, laconic but not without a gentle side.

Rating: This movie was running around C for the most part, (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing") but the unfocused, diffuse last third dropped the rating to D, for "Divided", i.e. "Some good, some bad.")

 

Flame & Citron (Flammen & Citronen) (Movie) written by Lars Andersen and Ole Christian Madsen; directed by Ole Christian Madsen; starring Thure Lindhardt, Mads Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade, Peter Mygind, Mille Lehfeldt, Flemming Enevold, Jasper Christensen

It’s 1944 and two Danish resistance fighters are systematically killing Nazi collaborators in Copenhagen. Their real names being Bent Faurschou-Hviid and Jrgen Haagen Schmith, they're  known, respectivelyl, as "Flame" and "Citron".

The dramatic crux of the movie isn’t clear at first. Is it about the fact that these two guys seem to have difficulty killing certain people – women, for instance? Or is it about the fact that their calling causes trouble in their own families, as some scenes would indicate? After a while, it appears that maybe the story’s about not being sure who in the resistance is taking orders from whom. Some fighters claim loyalty to the local bosses; others say they’re taking their instructions from London.

Eventually, you realize that the movie’s about all of these things. They were issues in the lives of Flame and Citron. That’s the way with a historical movie. You don’t have to provide any dramatic turning point; you just present the facts as they happened. Doubtless that’s enough to attract a loyal following among Danes, surely the film’s primary target audience. After all, these two guys are posthumously-decorated national heroes. Fittingly, the tone is almost reverential. Ominous music – mostly dissonant strings – keeps reminding us how portentous this all is.

Without that grounding in history, however, this would almost be a parody of noir-ish war movies about betrayal and double crossing. Who can you trust? Who’s a double-agent? A triple-agent? You’ve got a femme fatale (Stine Stengade) – lotsa lipstick and a blonde wig – who displays a knack for wriggling out of tight places; every time she opens her mouth, her story changes. The men traipse around in long, floppy coats with deep pockets for guns. Every shot is beautifully composed, most of them consisting of drab interiors. We don’t get any Venetian blinds casting jazzy shadows on the proceedings, but Flame does live in an amazing basement apartment that evokes a gentlemen’s lav on the old London tube: all white tiles, with a bathtub sitting by itself on one wall.

And the smoking. Ah, the smoking! A Martian encountering this movie could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that earthlings have, on one of their hands, a sixth digit – a white, tubular thing that exudes smoke; in order to speak, the earthlings are obliged to suck up some of this smoke and blow it out as a way of expressing their words. But, you might ask, do you want the characters to be more virtuous and health-conscious than would be believable for the times? No. I get it that people smoked a lot then. But I don’t need to be reminded so often. The repetition of the device becomes about as interesting as characters in an Irish play rushing around muttering "Faith an’ begorrah!"

Admittedly, this movie would be more engaging for somebody who didn’t have to keep reading the subtitles. When speakers overlap, as they often do, it can be difficult to decipher from the subtitles who’s saying what. Another problem is that the dialogue is information-heavy; by the end of the movie, I’m going: who was Aksel? I can’t remember this Bodil character they’re talking about! This is one of those movies where I need somebody smarter than me in the next seat to explain everybody’s identity and to help me negotiate the plot turns.

Still, the movie might have been enjoyable if there were something special about Flame and Citron as a team. But there’s almost nothing to give us any sense of the dynamic between them. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they’re not. On his own, Thure Lindhardt (Flame) projects some interesting qualities. With his youthful good looks and his sensitive expression, he gives you the impression of an impassioned young guy who has a certain amount going on behind those limpid blue eyes.

Not so with Jrgen Haagen Schmith (Citron). His face conveys little of interest. His froggy scowl behind dorky horn-rimmed glasses almost never changes. It’s not until about half way through the movie that a couple of quick smiles reveal that he has upper teeth. The only curoisity aroused regarding him is the question: why is his glum face always glistening with grease and/or sweat? Is that supposed to tell us something about his character or is it just that the makeup department ran short of face powder? Maybe the point is that this is what the real Citron looked like all the time. But the physical recreation of a character isn’t good enough for a movie. You’ve got to give us some insight into the person, unless you just want to present a sort of puppet who serves the purposes of hagiography. In any case, no real person could always have a four-day stubble on his face, as this guy does until the very last scenes in the movie.

Understandably, there is an audience for this kind of thing among people who know the history involved and who want to see due honour paid to these men in popular culture – i.e. the cinema. For others, those of us who might want something from a movie in the way of revelation of character and artistic truth, this movie may bring on a certain restiveness at the suggestion that, just because something deals with First or Second World War, we’re supposed to pay dutiful homage.

Rating: D minus (where D = Divided i.e. some good, some bad)

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Mystery) by Stieg Larsson, 2005 (English translation by Reg Keeland, 2008)

This import from Sweden has achieved mythic status among whodunnit lovers.  My paperback edition comes with six pages of rave blurbs from writers and publications world-wide. Even the book’s length (841 pages in my version) comes as something of a novelty for a mystery, thereby helping to build fascination. No doubt, the dramatic back story in real life – the author promptely died after delivering this manuscript and two others to his agent – has further fuelled the hype.

Is it worth all the fuss? Yes and no.

While the book reads quickly and easily, you’re not getting great writing here. Apart from the eponymous girl with the tattoo, most of the run-of-mill characters spout routine dialogue (except for an elderly mother who comes off as a cartoon witch). The clichs of the genre abound. Three times we’re told that the hairs on somebody’s neck stand on end. In separate paragraphs on the same page we get, "Armansky sighed and shifted his gaze...." and "Armansky sighed and looked once more at the folder...." People are often swallowing hard or holding their breath or feeling acid in their throat. Teeth chatter and hearts thump. Someone feels "cold terror piercing his chest," someone else experiences "a cold fire run down the back of his neck," and a third person notes "an ice-cold fear in her gut."

But all that’s forgiveable if a mystery’s good enough. This one is.

Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist, has been recruited by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of Vanger’s grand niece some thirty years ago. And why would Blomkvist, a specialist in financial matters, take the job? He’s at loose ends after being convicted of libelling a certain shady financier. Blomkvist’s reward for taking on the Vanger case – on top of a substantial monetary sum – will be evidence provided by Vanger to redress Blomkvist’s libel conviction by proving the guilt of his opponent.

As for the disappearance years ago, it’s what you might call a "locked room" mystery, in that the missing woman was last seen at a huge family gathering on an island which was temporarily cut off from the mainland by an accident on the adjoining bridge. No trace of her body was ever found. The only possible suspects are the many members of the dysfunctional Vanger family who were on the island at the time. An excellent premise, but it means that we have to plough through nearly three hundred pages of troubled family history before the murder investigation starts to move forward with some new clues.

Probably the best aspect of the book is the creation of the character of Lisbeth Salander, she of the dragon tattoo. This young woman, a freelance researcher for a security company, joins the quest as an assistant to Blomkvist. Almost everything Salander says and does defies expectations. You never know how she’s going to react. She has a chip on her shoulder roughly the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. To say that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly would be inaccurate because she doesn’t tolerate them, period.

Obviously, Salander has a lot of baggage but she’s extremely intelligent and ruthless in her determination to take down her prey. At one point we learn that the courts consider her not mentally competent to manage her own affairs. That seems scarcely credible in the case of someone so brilliant in many ways, but the revelation of some clinical details helps to make her complex character more believable. I like the way her feelings about Blomkvist develop slowly and warily. When it looks like we’re headed for a picket-fence ending for her, we’re pulled back and left with a somewhat more bleak, but believable, reality.

And yet, in retrospect, I find myself wondering if Salander isn’t just another version of "Wonder Woman" – one with piercings and attitude. There’s almost nothing this "girl" can’t do. She has miraculous powers of recall ("photographic memory"). Although slight of build, she manages to subdue much more powerful men. She has underground connections with hackers who enable her to commit very complicated illegalities in the Internet world. And when it comes to pulling off complicated financial transactions, donning disguises and playing roles, she’s undaunted.

Still, she does add spice to the solving of the mystery about the disappearance of Vanger’s niece. After that, the excitement fades. Vanger’s involvement in the affairs of the magazine that employs Blomkvist isn’t a real grabber. Nor is Blomkvist’s revenge on the crook who accused him of libel. That’s because the process of retribution seems too facile. The author has set the villain up as a sleazebag and it just takes a lot of computer chicanery to bring him down.

But the book has offered certain incidental pleasures. One of them is a touristy look at life in Sweden, particularly on the Vanger family’s island estate and in the nearby village. A stunning and hitherto unknown (by me) fact about the nation emerges: the preponderance of coffee. For Swedes, it appears, drinking the stuff is as basic as breathing. Or is the author using java the way French film directors, until quite recently, used smoking? You sometimes got the impression those film makers feared the actors would have nothing to do if they weren’t wielding cigarettes. Same with the preparing, pouring and drinking of coffee in this book. I counted 35 separate coffee episodes in the last 400 pages. (In the same section, there were only 11 references to smoking.)

At one point, Blomkvist makes a little joke about the fact that the people he’s interviewing in a certain rural part of Sweden keep forcing coffee on him. He shouldn’t mock those rubes. He should stand back and look at how often author Larsson has all of these Swedes – including Blomkvist himself – resorting to caffeine.

 

The Order of Good Cheer (Novel) by Bill Gaston, 2008

The jacket of this book trumpets the Globe and Mail pronouncement: "Canada has produced few writers as astonishingly original as Bill Gaston." According to the biographical blurb on the cover, a couple of Mr. Gaston’s previous books have been finalists for such prestigious awards as the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. In a listing of books recently re-issued in paperback, the Globe refers to the author as "The perennially underrated Gaston, who should be a national treasure."

Around here, he’s been pretty much an undiscovered treasure until now. While I was reading this book, though, the question that grew more and more insistent was: why hasn’t this guy won some of these major awards? The writing here is surely better than in some of the half-baked efforts that have achieved national acclaim. In fact, so many noteworthy points crop up in the reading of the book that it’s going to take some stern discipline on my part to keep this review to a reasonable length.

In The Order of Good Cheer, Mr. Gaston tells two stories. One deals with Andy, a single guy in his forties, who lives in Prince Rupert, on the northern coast of British Columbia. Most of the forward thrust of his story comes from his anticipating the arrival back in town of his girlfriend from teen years. They haven’t seen each other in two decades, during which time she moved away, became a professional dancer, had a baby and recovered from cancer.

Meanwhile, Andy’s boring job in a granary leaves him lots of time to read. Currently, he’s absorbed in an account of life in Port Royal (now Annapolis Basin, Nova Scotia) where Samuel de Champlain, along with some other nobles and commoners, is trying to establish a colony in 1607. Mr. Gaston’s novel switches back and forth between the stories separated by nearly 400 years.

First among the virtues of the novel are the many details about life in the colony and the interaction with the Indians. (The material that Andy’s reading, in the spirit of the 17th century, refers to the natives as "savages". Since "First Nations Peoples" or "Aboriginals" doesn’t strike quite the right note here, we’ll refer to them as "Indians".) Would you have guessed that sheets of glass for windows in the fortification were shipped in molasses to prevent breakage? That fact leads to a marvellous scene where two workers are instructed to take a sheet of uncrated glass down to the water to wash it off: they stand at the shore, on either side of the glass, licking the molasses, their tongues mirroring each other’s. Another insight into life in the colony concerns the importance of dogs: "Stooping to caress a dog and receive its love is the same here as it was in France, so when he caresses a dog he is wherever he wishes to be, the spirit of the act being primary, not the particular mud under one’s boots." We also learn of the importance of games to stave off excruciating boredom. For trade with the Indians, the colonists offer knives, blankets and...news to me....nails.

Among the intriguing anthropological notes is Champlain’s wish that an Indian friend had not picked up the white man’s custom of smiling on meeting but had rather continued to stare, as was the Indian custom. It turns out that the distinctive smell of the Indians, as compared to the Frenchmen, comes from a diet lacking in salt. The Indian method of cooking a seal in a tree stump is explained. By way of further anthropological detail, there comes the fact that Indians further west use the same word for "moon" and "sun". We also learn that the Indians do not wink but they have in their repertoire of gestures, as do the white men, the indication of murder by miming a knife drawn across the throat.

The author shows great insight into character when he acknowledges that the commoners among the colonists, when asked by the nobles why they joined the project, could never give the real reasons – mostly escape from problems at home. Instead, they mouth hypocrisies about service to God and the King. Champlain sees this sort of evasion as a fundamental right demanded by the common man: "that he be allowed the freedom, in saying the expected thing, to lie to the nobleman."

Regarding Champlain, Mr. Gaston does a nice refurbishing job on the character that Pierre Berton, Canada’s popular authority on all matters historical, has referred to as "that assassin." It’s interesting to learn that Champlain wasn’t much of a noble, as nobles go, and that his Southern accent was considered infradig. Of all the Frenchmen, though, he’s the one who has spent the most time in New France, having survived the scurvy that virtually wiped out the small settlement at the island of St. Croix the previous year. He’s pictured here, not so much as the leader, but as a diligent map maker, who prefers to spend his down time with the common men rather than with the nobles.

Some of the outstanding scenes of life in Port Royal include the baptism of a large group of Indians. At this rowdy gathering, one Indian elder sports a live bird entangled in his hair. One unforgettably sad scene depicts a snowball fight where men dying from scurvy are dragged out of the infirmary and forced to take part in the merriment, presumably for their own good.

All of this is conveyed in beautiful, vividly descriptive, writing. Here’s Champlain’s observation of an Indian’s response to tasting wine: "Samuel watches him look inside himself for change. Indeed, his eyes move, flitting as they would in a new forest, though this exploration is inner." A pile of escargots dumped on a table makes "a thousand moist clicks at once, more rush than clatter, almost a hiss." A reader can’t help being enchanted by this description of the November sun: "a falling but vivid light....A heavy and liquid light, whatever it touches invites description in poetry. Even men’s faces gain depth and beauty, even the harmed ground at their feet."

In the contemporary part of the book, comes Andy’s marvellous take on a ship at night: "The ghost-orange halogens were already on and the vast expanse of decks was lit up so as to suggest empty midnight basketball courts in an oddly deserted city." Among many such examples of fine writing, one clunker of a clich stands out as the notable exception. Recalling his girlfriend’s performance in a sexy ballet, Andy remembers that "his nether zone was wildly abuzz."

In all other respects, though, Andy comes across as one of the truest men in fiction today. He’s the dude you nod to at the beer store, the one you see sitting in the bar watching the ball game. The very real sense of Andy’s presence reminds me of the kind of man that’s central to the fiction of acclaimed US writer Richard Ford – just an ordinary guy. In fact, Andy’s so comfortable with his blandness that he realizes that, by now, he has probably become "eccentrically bland."

Which is not to say that there aren’t special things about him. For one thing, there’s all that reading, which makes him more knowledgeable than most. Plus, he occasionally takes a wander through the local art gallery. Furthermore, while Andy himself may not think so, the reader begins to suspect that we’re dealing with a bit of a narcissist here. He’s given to staring at himself in the mirror and assessing his looks. Women have told him that he has good eyes. But maybe they’re too big? He notes that he doesn’t have abs but he considers that his "recently shrinking belly" is "forgivable." When he gets dolled up for a visit to his mom and her lady friends, he’s miffed that nobody notices his new clothes. Is this a bit more preening than the typical good old boy would indulge in? Or is Bill Gaston showing us the true attitude of most men underneath their pretense of not caring about such things?

Where Andy most becomes interesting as an individual is in his thoughts about other people and his relationships with them. Thinking about the impending return of his old flame, he embarks on a thorough meditation on whether or not absence makes the heart grow fonder. Later, comes this fantasy about the two of them: "He [as] an able knight to her ailing queen, resting his temple against her jutting hip bone. On his face that knight’s mix of earnest sorrow, one less naive than those bystanders over there might think. His knight’s sorrow came from awareness that his queen might ask him to leave her forever, and of course he then must."

Even more remarkable is this reverie prompted by a film clip of a sperm penetrating an egg: "Andy had identified not with sperm but with the egg. He was not sure why. Maybe it was his passivity, his lifestyle of mostly just sitting here, thinking, egglike with unborn fantasy. Wasn’t there something a little womanly about his waiting for a lover to stop voyaging and come home?" You gotta admit that it takes an unusual guy to admit to such thoughts about himself. Even more so, this observation when Andy’s chatting with Pauline, the wife of his best buddy, about the fact that her marriage is breaking up: "She was his friend too, and this was allowed, this was fine that he be her girlfriend for a bit."

That may sound a bit wussy but Mr. Gaston makes us believe in Andy and all the other guys in this book as fully red-blooded Canucks. Andy’s communication with his buddy Drew, a co-worker at the granary, sounds authentically male in its terse, succinct way. The other co-workers all have a genuine working class sound to them. An Indian friend’s observations on his people serve up just the right combination of native lore and the cynicism of a young hipster. This telling comment sums up one local character: "...like some politicians, he’d got so good at trying to act like a nice guy that, over the years, he’d actually become one."

But don’t think Mr. Gaston can only handle male characters. Pauline, the wife of Andy’s buddy, comes across as a very sympathetic woman. A couple of young Chinese women visiting Prince Rupert speak in a way that perfectly captures the speech patterns of Asian people struggling with English.

As for Andy’s mom, there’s something odd about her. In fact, Andy’s not sure that he would like her if he didn’t love her. It’s hard to say what sets her apart but, thinking back on a childhood memory of her in a move lineup, Andy nails it down. It wasn’t that she was unfriendly or haughty. "Nor was it that she thought a lineup beneath her – she seemed quite happy to stand in one – but more that it actually was beneath her, like it would be beneath a cheerful queen." The mom’s living arrangements in a house with three other widows are fascinating and a Christmas Day that Andy and his mom spend together – the affection, the loyalty, the quiet, the boredom – works as an extraordinarily effective set piece.

Is this the perfect book, then? Not quite.

In spite of the excellent writing, a somewhat arch tone mars the sections on Port Royal. It's never clear to me where this text is meant to come from. At the beginning of Andy’s story, we’re told that he’s immersed in Champlain’s writings. But the narrative that alternates with Andy’s seems to be a novel about Port Royal that Mr. Gaston has crafted in such a way as to give the impression that it was written closer to that era than to ours. That could be why the prose sometimes sounds hokey. The principle involved seems to be: never use a simple word or expression when a more awkward one will do.

So we get "commenced" instead of "began." We’re told that an Indian girl’s eyes are "underlarge". Does that mean small? One word baffling world, which appears several times, is "overcrows." To be raped becomes "to be riven" and to "recomprise" apparently means to re-write. We’re told that somebody wandering in the forest has difficulty finding a "patient seat" on a fallen log. (Not surprising, really. To find one of those, you’d need to check into the waiting room of an ER)

Among other examples of stilted wording come the statement that "he is not large of frame or thick in hand" and this comment regarding a dark-seeming sky: "Of course it is but his inner humour that so tints the heavens." In the same vein: "But with similar small regret did he burn the pages of his sole book...." In a discussion about whether scurvy is caused by moods comes this statement: "But a bad humour equalled, was, sickness." I have no idea what the function of "equalled" is in that sentence.

In the midst of this attempt to create the feel of a long-past era, comes a lapse (as it seems to me) due to an inappropriate contemporary usage. A young colonist is reflecting at a certain point on whether or not he and his Indian girlfriend will "make love" that night. It doesn’t seem plausible to me that a rough-hewn young man of the 17th century would use this twentieth-century-sounding euphemism for sex. I’m also somewhat skeptical about a sentimental feel to the romance between him and the Indian girl. While the communication difficulties between the two lovers is well conveyed, their relationship borders on being Disney cute at times.

Other possible anachronisms loom. Mind you, any author needs to give his historical characters some attributes that today’s readers can identify with. But there’s always the question of how blatant you can be when projecting our sensibilities back onto our forebears. Mr. Gaston may be crossing the line when it comes to the feelings of some colonists’ regarding the baptism of the Indians and the connections between sex and religion. Perhaps the thoughts conveyed are supported in historical documents but, to me, a suspiciously modern, humanism is reflected. Another anachronism – as it strikes me – would be the note that, when the priest dies, some of the men consider giving each other Holy Communion. Surely this is an imposition of a Post Vatican II Catholicity onto the 17th century colonists?

Another incongruously contemporary note comes at the end of the book when one young settler is reflecting on the hardships and trials endured. He comes to the conclusion that kindness is the answer to it all. This brings to mind the famous quote from Henry James who, near the end of his life, said: "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind." Very touching, coming from the astute man of letters. But would a young carpenter of 400 years ago have expressed such delicacy?

Most of these points are relatively minor complaints about a book that’s well worth reading. A more important issue – and perhaps the one that explains the book’s absence from lists of nominees for major prizes – might be the structural concept at the heart of the book: the inter-weaving of the stories of Andy and the settlers at Port Royal.

To me, there doesn’t seem to be any very significant connection between the two narratives. Occasionally, Andy reflects on certain details of his life that mirror the colonists’ – the use of candles, at one point, for instance. The business of getting through the winter in northern British Columbia reminds him at times of the colonists’ struggles. Near the end of the book, Andy stages a party where he tries to recreate several details of one of the feasts of the "Order of Good Cheer", a ritual Champlain established to entertain the men in the depths of winter. Some environmental and ecological themes overlap occasionally but not with any particular impact.

Clearly, Mr. Gaston intended a deep resonance between the two stories. If there is one, it eludes me. Not that I wasn’t looking. All through my reading of the book, I kept expecting that the twinning of the two tales would provide some big pay-off in terms of Andy’s understanding of his place in the world. Without that, the book was, in the end, somewhat dissatisfying – all the publisher’s promises notwithstanding.

According to the jacket blurb, Mr. Gaston’s combining of the two narratives shows "how both groups share a hauntingly similar sense of the fragility, grandeur, tedium, and ironies of life in a land that is both home and alien." You could say that about the groups in Gone With the Wind and The Great Gatsby but that wouldn’t make publishing them in tandem especially meaningful.

 

Echo Park (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2006

Years ago – maybe fifteen – mystery buffs were touting Michael Connelly as one of the best new writers on the scene. By now, he’s done more than fulfill that promise. He has become, in his own way, a master of the genre.

In Echo Park, Detective Harry Bosch – whom we know well from previous appearances – has re-opened a "cold case" file that’s been bugging him. A young woman disappeared thirteen years ago, leaving her clothes neatly folded in her car. Her body has never been found. Now, a guy charged with murdering some other women has agreed to confess to the murder Bosch is re-investigating. The creep promises to lead the cops to the buried body. The deal with the District Attorney is that this will earn the murderer a life sentence instead of the fatal needle.

It all looks solid. The guy knows details of the crime that weren’t released publicly. The young woman’s parents will get closure. The District Attorney, who’s running for re-election, will look good. And Bosch can put his mind at rest.

Except that something looks fishy to him.

Michael Connelly ratchets the intrigue to extraordinary levels. There’s the complicated legal situation: according to the deal agreed upon, none of the information the offender provides can be used against him in court, unless it can be proved that he has lied. Trying to figure out the guy’s psychology presents enough of a challenge that Bosch has to call in his old pal, Rachel Walling, a profiler with the FBI. On top of which, the politics of city council and the DA’s office threaten to get in the way. Then there’s Bosch’s guilt about not having solved the murder earlier, given that he apparently overlooked an obvious link to the guy who’s confessing. Not to mention the fact that Bosch is eventually forbidden to pursue the case any further, meaning that he has to go "off reservation" with it.

All this is handled with formidable skill. Usually, political issues affecting a case tend to sound contrived. Not here. The conflict between Bosch and the DA comes off as genuine. You’re never sure whether the DA’s trustworthy or not. (It makes a Canadian reader glad that we don’t elect such officials.) Bosch gets off some good lines. When the DA complains about Bosch’s scowl, Bosch answers: "This is me when I’m happy." Near the end, when catching a sleazy lawyer with his pants down – literally – Bosch comments, "It’s always good to deal with a lawyer. I hate having to explain the law all the time." At about four-fifths of the way through, it looks like the book is going to run out of steam, given that we have a culprit caught and a confession. But there’s still a lot of scuttlebutt about the political background to settle.

Some further touches of excellent writing come in the form of metaphors and interesting reflections. Bosch makes an important distinction between closure and truth. He knows there can never be closure for a victim’s family. But he does believe in the need to know the truth. The bad guy, contributing his own insight, notes that there’s a good and a bad dog fighting against each other in all of us; the dog who wins is the one you choose to feed. That may not be a concept original to Michael Connelly but it works well here. I was also struck by Bosch’s observation that "pain is weakness leaving the body." Here’s Bosch's novel way of assessing a case as compared to a car: "He found no air in the brake lines, no sand in the gas tank. It was a car that could drive. The only thing missing was motive." And I don’t think any writer has ever conveyed so vividly the effect of an ex-lover’s parting shot: "Her words had gone through him like the sounds of a roller coaster. Low rumbling and high shrieks."

Given such high quality prose, it’s puzzling that there are so many writing quirks that lower the quality of the book overall. This, for instance, is one of the those books with far too much reliance on the reporting of autonomic responses to convey a subject’s emotions. You could almost compile an Index of them. On page 12, Bosch feels "pressure on his insides" and on page 16, "his insides tighten." Later on, we’re told that some old cases "gnawed at his insides."

This guy really should see an internist; if it’s not his guts its his chest. On page 5, Bosch feels "the dull thud of dread in his chest" and, further down on the same page, he finds that certain questions fill "the hollow inside with dread." Much later, Bosch feels "a dull thud pound in his chest." (I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity to the earlier "dull thud" except for forceful the monosyllables.) At various other points, we get "tightness" and/or "deep pressure" in his chest. We get his bile rising a couple of times.

Surprisingly, though, he later feels "a space open up in his chest" and not long after that comes "a satisfying tug in his guts." Does this mean we can cancel the 911 call?

Then there are the clichs and repetitions of catch words. The following apply to one exhumation: "grim duty" (pages 154 and 160); "grim motorcade" (158) and "grim work" (170). Wouldn’t you think such a successful author could afford a thesaurus? We’re gifted with nuggets of wisdom to the effect that the more things change, the more they stay the same and that a driver makes a sudden turn "as if on cue." The phenomenon whereby push comes to shove merits a couple of references. A waiter, thinking a diner has not liked her uneaten food, speaks with a "trembling voice." (Does he think she’s the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates?) Someone mentions that Bosch looks like he’s "seen a ghost" but, Mr. Connelly could arguably escape the rap for that one, in that it comes from the mouth of one of his characters.

My only reason for belabouring these points is that it amazes me that you find these lapses in writing that is otherwise so fine. It would have been easy to eradicate them, turning out an exceptional and flawless work. Is it that the writer just doesn’t care that much? Or that his editors aren’t on the ball? Or does he feel that pandering occasionally to poor taste and lower expectations helps sales?

None of this is to suggest, however, that the book is anything but superb. The biggest mystery is how Mr. Connelly manages to keep turning out such excellent ones. A mischievous thought: given the long list of people thanked at the back of the book, is it possible that he has a team of writers working with him, combing over every plot development and finessing every complication? But look at the enormous creative teams on Hollywood movies. Even with all the money thrown at them, they seldom turn out anything as near-perfect as Michael Connelly does.

 

In Patagonia (Travel) by Bruce Chatwin, 1977

Ever since the The New Yorker’s fulsome profile of Bruce Chatwin several years back, I’ve been meaning to look into his oeuvre. Then along comes the Globe and Mail’s list of recommended summer reading, in which Margaret Cannon, the paper’s expert on mysteries, cites Mr. Chatwin’s In Patagonia as the perfect summer read: "I’ve read it so many times my copy is in tatters." Thumbing through Mr. Chatwin’s book, says Ms Cannon, is like "being by the fire, listening to his voice."

But not for a first-time reader, I find. Maybe you need to belong to a Bruce Chatwin cult to get the most out of it. Probably it helps to be previously familiar with his writing and his style. Maybe it has something to do with being in love with the charismatic man and his dazzling image.

To me, the book reads as a series of short vignettes, not very well stitched together. While some of the sections are quite effective, the whole does not make for a smooth, satisfying read. When confronted with new dramatis personae and settings, you’re constantly asking: who are these people? where are we now?

One of the oddest aspects of the book, is that, no matter how glittering the aura of Bruce Chatwin in real life, very little sense of him or his personality comes through. At one point in his trek, he announces that he "suddenly felt light and happy". That’s virtually the first reference to any feeling on the part of the author. Further on, he’s talking about some writings that other people disparage. "But," says Mr. Chatwin, "I think they are wonderful." That italicization of ‘I’ comes across as something of a nuclear detonation of personal expression in a book almost devoid of it.

It is as though Mr. Chatwin feels that a true observer of other cultures, i.e. a travel writer, must keep his own personality out of the way. Maybe this was once thought to be the high road of travel writing but such abstemiousness on the part of a writer seems unnecessarily stringent in an age that has given us such wonderfully personal travel writing as Paul Theroux’s and Bill Bryson’s. By comparison, Mr. Chatwin’s approach almost seems a kind of reverse snobbery: I’m so important, I’m such a sophisticated chap, that I wouldn’t stoop to say anything about myself in my text.

As a result, the book fails to have any connecting voice, any personal sense of purpose. Without that, there’s no momentum to carry the reader forward. For the most part, you have no idea why the author moves from one place to another on his aimless rambling. You wouldn’t mind tagging along, if he’d just give you some hint of what’s up. But no. It’s like travelling with somebody who keeps saying: Go here! Go there! without ever helping you to see some kind of overall plan or purpose.

Travelling blind, as it were, you keep bumping up against references that bewilder you. The second sentence in one vignette reads: "The twin black smoke-stacks of the Swift Corporation’s old freezer reared above the prison yard." What is this ‘Swift Corporation’? There's been no previous mention of it. Is it the famous meat company? That would explain the reference to the freezer. But what’s with the ‘prison yard’? Are we supposed to know that there's a famous prison hereabouts?

Among other confusing passages, one takes you deep into a discussion about a couple of outlaw fugitives before you twig that the author’s talking about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One rugged episode ends with the author flaked out in "the parlour Viamonte", where "all the family" were absent except for "Uncle Beatle." What is this parlour? Who are the Viamonte family? Who is Uncle Beatle? Another section starts talking about the author Lucas Bridges, goes on to Frederick A. Cook, an American doctor, makes references to Rip van Winkle, Mount McKinley, Robert Peary, the Second World War, Sir Leonard Woolley (the excavator of Ur) and the British Museum. It’s not until the third paragraph that we get any connection to Patagonia.

As evidenced in the last example, famous names are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, perhaps to create an impression of erudition. In addition to the afore-mentioned outlaws, we get, for instance, Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Ernest Shackleton. Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy also come in for frequent mention. One such citing, however, does not enhance the sense of the author’s learning. He says that Darwin’s seeing certain inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego may have triggered the theory "that Man had evolved from an ape-like species and that some men had evolved further than others." Does Mr. Chatwin actually intend to imply that Darwin conceived any such theory? Quite apart from the racist connotations, it’s not the idea of evolution that was unique to Darwin; that was in the air long before him. His great contribution to the advancement of human knowledge was the theory of natural selection as the driving force of evolution.

Not long before the end of the book, Mr. Chatwin’s fabled relative, Charley Milward, comes into focus. This guy, a cousin of the author’s grandmother, once sent back to England a mysterious animal skin that sparked young Chatwin's interest in Patagonia. It could be said that the quest to trace the footsteps of this relative provides the backbone of the book – if only that sense of purpose weren’t so elusive.

However, the material becomes engaging and entertaining once Mr. Milward is tracked down. Mr. Chatwin even reproduces one of his relative’s written yarns about an attempt at sea to rescue a man overboard. Daring, suspenseful, vivid and tragic, the incident reads better than much of the rest of Mr. Chatwin’s book. Which makes you wonder whether Mr. Milward was a better writer than his young relative. But a note at the end of the book, says that Mr. Chatwin "adapted" Charley Milward’s material. Too bad Mr. Chatwin didn’t have somebody to do a bit of "adapting" of his own work.

Which is not to say that some segments don’t work very well. Sometimes Mr. Chatwin provides a beautiful portrait of someone he meets: an elderly spinster, say, eking out her life in a flower-bedecked English cottage at the bottom of the world. Some information about the Yaghan language, used by the people who call themselves Ymana, is fascinating: verbs take primary place; nouns are derived from their connections to verbs. The author captures very well the irony in a ceremony designed to honour early settlers whose holdings disappeared in land reform. We get fine attention to detail in an account of the way a barber meticulously tidied his shop before sitting down in the customer’s chair and shooting himself.

If you read such passages over and over, you too will have a copy of In Patagonia that’s in tatters one day. Maybe you will become so familiar with the text that you won’t balk at the bewildering references or the lack of any sense of direction. I can see how, over time, dipping into this book could seem like listening to the author’s voice by the fire. For the uninitiated reader, though, the frequent response is more along the lines of: I guess you had to be there. Not exactly the best you can say for a travelogue.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com