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Fall Reading 2010

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The process of working our way through our summer reading list has spilled over into autumn. So herewith a report on our Fall Reading

Reviewed here: A Confederacy of Dunces (Novel); Case Histories (Mystery); Solar (Novel); The Birthday Party (Memoir); A Long Way Gone (Memoir); Wish I Could Be There (Autobiography); The Exception (Novel); Why Socrates Died (History); Flaubert (Biography); How Jesus Became Christian (Religious Studies); The Best Laid Plans (Novel); In the Blood (Memoir); Troubling Love (Novel) and Arctic Chill (Mystery)

A Confederacy of Dunces (Novel) by John Kennedy Toole, 1980

Our aim here at Dilettante’s Diary, as you may know, is to take every work of art – book, painting, movie, play, etc – as a stand-alone piece to be evaluated on its own terms, prescinding from any hype or backstory about its creation and its creator. This book presents one case, however, where it’s impossible to discuss a work and its relevance without some awareness of the remarkable circumstances behind it.

John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces, committed suicide in the late 1960s when he couldn’t interest publishers in his manuscript. That’s the tag line that accompanies most references to the book. Quite an attention-getter, you must admit. But it might be fair to say that Mr. Toole’s lack of literary success may not have been the sole reason for his suicide. A native of New Orleans who was in his early thirties at the time of his death, Mr. Toole was a college English prof struggling with depression, severe headaches and alcoholism. After his death, it was his mother, Thelma D. Toole, who believed so much in her son’s work that she kept trying to get recognition for it. Her persistence paid off when she persuaded the distinguished Southern US novelist Walker Percy to look at the manuscript. Amazed at what he saw as the prodigious quality of the novel, Mr. Percy shepherded the work through publication in 1980 and provided an introduction. The book won Mr. Toole the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1981.

Since then, it has been hailed as a cult classic. The paperback edition from Grove Press comes with kudos like "an epic comedy" (The Washington Post), "An astonishingly good novel," (Newsweek) and "One of the funniest books ever written," (The New Republic). Our own interest was sparked by a passing comment in The Globe and Mail. And arts reports suggest that a stage adaptation recently performed in Atlanta could soon reach Broadway. So how could we decline to jump on the bandwagon, even if somewhat belatedly?

The novel centres on one Ignatius Reilly, a recent college grad who lives with his mom in genteel poverty in New Orleans. No denying it: Ignatius is one of the weirdest and most colourful characters to emerge from any country’s literature. He’s obese, lazy, paranoid, pompous, hypochondriacal, intellectual, articulate, self-deluded, megalomaniacal, verbose, and a poseur. What’s not to like, you may ask? Well, in spite of all these lovable traits, I find his lying and his willingness to blame innocent people for his mistakes a little off-putting.

To me, the best term to categorize the novel would be "picaresque": the misadventures and exploits of a rascal. Fielding’s Tom Jones is one of the classics of the genre. But Walker Percy describes Mr. Toole’s book as a "great rambling farce of Falstaffian proportions." Which pinpoints one of the problems with Ignatius Reilly, as I see him. In spite of all Falstaff’s faults, I find there’s something lovable about him; maybe that’s because we sense that he has some self-knowledge and that he knows he’s being outrageous at times. Nobody who takes himself too seriously could get involved in a play-acting scene the way Falstaff does with Prince Hal. Sir John seems to be willing to send up his own persona; there’s a kind of wink from him every now and then.

No such self-parody in Ignatius Reilly, as far as I can tell. And yet, he does occasionally tug a string of sympathy. Now and then you find yourself thinking that maybe the point is that there’s a bit of Ignatius in all of us. We all take ourselves too seriously at times, indulge in ridiculous fantasies about imagined achievements far beyond our abilities, respond to taunts or insults – and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – with haughty recoil, falling back on an assumption of grandeur that has nothing to do with our true being.

Ignatius’ troubles start when he’s obliged to get a job because his mother, Irene, is being sued as a result of a driving mishap largely due to over-consumption of alcohol. (It was never quite clear to me what they were living on up to that point. Possibly a small pension of hers?) The driving incident leading to that predicament had me laughing helplessly – even though slapstick doesn’t usually do it for me. So yes, the novel can be very funny. It even brought on spontaneous guffaws at times. For instance, when an elderly woman interrupts a phone conversation to yell at one of her grandchildren: "Get the hell outside and go play on your bike before I come slap your face off." Many scenes have a surrealistically black comedy to them. For instance, the one where Ignatius’ beleaguered mom has been invited to a friend’s to meet an elderly and wealthy man. Not getting the message that this guy is a potential suitor, Irene keeps saying things that ruin the romantic possibilities of the situation.

In her slightly dim-witted way, Irene comes off as a very sweet old gal, even if she is a bit too fond of her wine. (By the end of the book, though, she becomes a screaming harridan.) Another favourite character would be Trixie, a very old lady who works in the office of a factory where Ignatius is briefly and disastrously employed. Trixie falls asleep at her desk all the time and whenever anybody calls on her for her services, she wakes up just long enough to ask: "Who?" The owner of the factory, a Mr. Levy, comes across as a gentle, diffident character whom you can’t help liking. Maybe your sympathy for him has much to do with your reaction against the vituperation of his wife. With wicked accuracy on the part of the writer, Mrs. Levy personifies the living stereotype of a certain kind of aggressive malcontent. Another formidable woman, Lana Lee, the proprietor of a rundown bar cum strip club, with her foul mouth and hard-bitten attitude, evokes a grudging admiration for being so consistently the bitch that she is.

But the character that stands out as the most brilliant creation is Jones, a black boy employed as a floor sweeper in Lana’s establishment. Not exactly the swiftest runner in the rat race, Jones consents to work for abominably low wages only because of his misapprehension that he needs a job in order to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. And yet, he has an uncanny knack for seeing through people, a kind of street-smart sassy way to him, as well as an ability to see the humorous side of himself. I can’t think of any black man in similar circumstances who has come through so vividly and believably in fiction. Much of that has to do with Jones’ way of speaking. Mr. Toole has captured an accent and an idiom that strike you smack in the face with their individuality. When his employer harangues Jones yet again about his floor-sweeping duties, he delivers himself of this encomium:

"I already finish on your flo. I turnin into a expert on flos. I think color cats got sweepin and moppin in they blood, it come natural. It sorta like eatin and breathin now to color peoples. I bet you give some little color baby one-year-old a broom in he han, he star sweepin his ass off. Whoa!"

 

But not every scenario or every character is so effective. Granting the novel’s many outstanding merits, I can sympathize with the publishers who had difficulty with the prospect of publishing it. For one thing, there’s the question of Ignatius’ attitude to the black people employed in the factory where he works (sort of). He takes an interest in them as specimens of humanity that he has never encountered before. He’s condescending, patronizing and arch in his manner with them. You can – just barely – accept that this would be a plausible representation of the feelings of a character like Ignatius, but you can see how publishers would be wary of exposing such ideas in the US in the 1960s.

Even worse is the treatment of gay people Ignatius encounters. The stereotypes abound: the screaming, the wrist-flapping, the gaudy clothes, the narcissism. These gay men are constantly exclaiming, "Oh, what fun!" and "Divine!" We’re supposed to believe we’re in the presence of a certain kind of recognizable people because they frequently use the word "tacky". Mr. Toole’s gift for characterization lets him down completely here, even in terms of dialogue. Except for the vocabulary just noted, the main representative of the gay group doesn’t sound at all different in his speech from Ignatius. In conversations between the two men, you can’t easily pick out which one is speaking at any given point. Clearly, Mr. Toole didn’t see this gay man as someone worth portraying in his individuality.

One wonders how any writer can have thought to publish such a view of gay men in the 1960s. Could it be that mainstream literature had so few gay characters back then that people might have been willing to accept these fakes as realistic? Nowadays, we’ve seen so many believable gay characters in movies, books and tv programs – people that are represented as having fully-rounded personae based in the real world – that we can reject these caricatures of an earlier time for what they are.

On top of which, Ignatius’ reason for involving himself with these men is hard to understand. It has something to do with his attempt to undermine the political machinations of a left-wing friend from university. This person, a woman named Minx, is always harrassing Ignatius about his unfulfilled sexuality. So he’s decided to form a political party of gay men.  Somehow, he feels that a national revolution brought about by these "Sodomites" [sic] will show Minx a thing or two. Don’t ask me how. And then there’s the fact that his strange relationship with Minx never comes very clear . That’s a serious drawback, in that Minx figures largely in the book’s resolution. Maybe another read-through would have cleared up that issue. After all, Walker Percy’s estimation of the novel as a work of genius was based on three readings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for such close study: the library wanted the book back for another reader.

By means of ingenious contrivances, the novel’s denouement brings together various threads of the plot. And some pointed social satire is encountered along the way – comments on the eating and television-watching habits of Americans, for instance. But some scenes are far too long and flimsy; they ramble on in a childish, self-indulgent way. The nonsensical aspect of much of the book makes you feel at times as if you’re getting the rejected material from an editorial meeting at Mad Magazine. A doofus of a policeman who can’t make any arrests is forced by his boss to don ridiculous outfits on the job. To what purpose, pray tell?

Which raises some questions about humour. Without getting humour down on its back and twisting its arm (as the fellow said about an analysis of the subject), I find myself wondering why some outlandish stuff can be funny and some isn’t. It seems to me that you can’t throw just any sort of gibberish at your audience on the assumption that they’ll find it funny. There has to be a certain connection to truth, to reality. No matter how far-fetched the situation may be, there has to be something in it that strikes a certain chord of familiarity, something that makes you think: yeah, that’s the way it could be or that says something about life as I know it. At its most extreme, A Confederacy of Dunces strikes me as a lot of ridiculous fooling around that has no relevance to anything in the known world.

On the subject of relevance, though, Internet research reveals that many of the strongest supporters of A Confederacy of Dunces are southerners. (As was Walker Percy, the book’s original champion.) Maybe a certain communal feeling of being in on the joke has boosted the book’s popularity. Fans claim it represents the real New Orleans with an authenticity that no other work has. I’m in no position to pass judgement on that, being completely unfamiliar with New Orleans. Admittedly, the constant fearful reference to "communiss" (i.e. Communists) probably reflects a very real aspect of the city at one point in its history. However, other books about places that were unfamiliar to me have given me a much stronger sense of place than this book does.

What to make, then, of this book’s inability to meet with acceptance from the nation’s publishers before the author’s tragic suicide? Are we to blame them for passing up a masterpiece? Some idea of Mr. Toole’s take on that can be gleaned from the quote from Jonathan Swift, offered as epigraph to the book, and the source of its title:

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." – from "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting."

Is Mr. Toole the genius and are the publishers the dunces? Let’s just say that if one of them had asked me to read the manuscript and to give my opinion as to whether it should be published, my response would have been: yes, but not without substantive re-writing and editing.

 

Case Histories (Mystery) by Kate Atkinson, 2004

A review by Margaret Cannon in The Globe and Mail made me think this might be something special in the mystery genre. And it is. Mind you, it takes a while to get your bearings. We start in 1970 with a genteel family scene that ends in tragedy. Then we jump to 1994 where a lawyer suffers a terrible familial loss. Next, we drop back to 1979, to a cottage in the country where a young mother’s struggle with postpartum depression leads to grisly results. And then we find ourselves in the current era, sitting in a car with a guy who’s watching somebody’s house and fantasizing about living in France.

Turns out that the guy in the car is Jackson Brodie, a former cop, now a private detective. At the moment, he’s tailing a client’s spouse for evidence of adultery, but he’ll eventually be asked to investigate the three other cases that took place in and around Cambridge (England). In each case, survivors are still puzzled by some aspects of what happened. As today’s clich would have it, they’re looking for "closure".

Although there are strong elements of mystery running through the novel, it doesn’t proceed in the typical manner of a whodunnit. Our detective does, indeed, solve some of the puzzles presented to him, and some genuine surprises emerge in the end, but he doesn’t spend a great deal of time obsessing over the cases. Rather, more time is given to the lives of the survivors and their methods of coping, as well as to Brodie’s private life. Ms. Atkinson has a way of conveying these lives that strikes me as a particularly cozy, British type of writing. You come to know these people awfully well and you feel very comfortable in their lives. In that way, the novel reminds me of the kind of books that Ruth Rendell writes under the pseudonym "Barbara Vine", books where what counts most isn’t so much the nailing of the identity of a killer but exploring why things happened as they did.

Among other departures from typical whodunnit formats, the point of view of this one keeps shifting. Sometimes we’re following one character, sometimes another. The hero detective by no means occupies centre stage at all times. Because of these changing perspectives, one of the oddest things about the book is the elliptical effect. Frequently something will be mentioned – a dead dog, say, or an urgent phone call – and you won’t learn until about thirty pages later what it was all about. At first, it seems slipshod that the author is leaving it so late to fill you in on details, but you eventually accept that the device works well within the author’s unique narrative style.

Which is not to say that the novel is flawless. In one section, it takes quite a while to figure out that a woman we’re focussing on is someone from a previous section who now has a new name and a new life. To further complicate matters, she keeps talking about John and Jonathan. Eventually, you catch on: one was her former hubby and the other is her current one. Why does an author make such pointless difficulty for a reader?

And I found some weakness in the department of character development. One middle-aged woman who figures prominently comes across as something of a clich spinster: her repugnance for youthful vulgarities, her insistence on propriety, her squeamish attitude to sex. But most of all, her objections to the corruption of the English language, particularly as a result of Americanisms. This comes to the fore on a visit a fast food place. The shuddering and quaking about such linguistic abominations as a "chickinlickin burger" are altogether too arch.

And yet, this same priggish woman – Amelia – offers one of the most striking examples of insight in the novel. Many years ago, her little sister, Olivia disappeared. As for Amelia's two remaining sisters, Sylvia has become a nun and Julia an actress: "Sometimes Amelia felt as if she had spent her whole life waiting for Olivia to come back, while Sylvia was talking to God and Julia was fucking." Other characters in the book express similarly intriguing observations about themselves and their situations. An example of self-searching that I liked very much occurs when our hero Brodie wonders whether somebody has been lying to him or merely avoiding the truth: "Was there a difference? He liked to think truth was an absolute but maybe that made him into a tight-arsed moral fascist."

In fact, this man’s character is one of the best aspects of the book. It might seem implausible that he would be asked to investigate three disparate crimes that happened years ago, but author Atkinson makes that believable, largely through the fact that Brodie doesn’t go looking for these jobs; they more or less fall in his lap and he shows a certain reluctance to take them on. A section on his childhood provides a touching explanation as to why he developed into the kind of man he is. He’s subjected to threats on his life that strike almost a corny note but they eventually turn out to be plausible. Although his involvement with his ex-wife stretches credulity in terms of the hostility on her part, Brodie’s companionship with their young daughter reads well. Dad and kid have a very friendly, affectionate relationship, sometimes colluding in adventures that might not be seen as appropriate in the opinion of a sterner guardian. But the kid always seems to know instinctively how to play the game. In this child, Ms. Atkinson has pulled off a feat that’s pretty rare in any contemporary fiction, particularly in mysteries: the creation of a youngster who’s immediately recognizable as a familiar member of the species.

And yes, there is some overlapping of the different cases in a way that provides a pleasing symmetry without seeming too contrived. You might even say that the avoidance of contrivance is one of the novel’s distinguishing features. Brodie doesn’t even solve all the riddles. Some of the answers come to us readers without his knowing about them. That makes him all the more believable as a human being rather than a superhero detective.

 

Solar (Novel) by Ian McEwan, 2010

One thing about Ian McEwan’s novels: you can usually trust that they’re going to be written with formidable narrative skill that grabs you on the first page and carries you right through to the end.

Not so with Solar.

This story about Michael Beard, a Nobel-prize-winning physicist in his late middle-age, proceeds in an arms-length style of narration. Phrases crop up like:

"And so it was that...."

"...it was there, three months later...."

"It surprised no one to learn that...."

"...it was unusual at a village fete for a middle-class woman...."

Instead of creating scenes that you experience as they’re happening, the author makes you listen to his voice going on and on, telling you about stuff that happened, rather than showing it to you.

And what he’s telling you gives scant reason to like the Beard character. He’s obese, indolent, inclined to use people to his advantage, not very honest, and hasn’t done any significant work since the youthful research that won him the Nobel. Provided not much effort is required of him, he sits on committees and boards that want him because of his big name. He’s with his fifth wife and, during their short marriage, he’s had eleven affairs with other women. Now she’s blatantly cheating on him and he discovers that it hurts like hell.

Should we care? Perhaps author McEwan wants to stir up some fellow-feeling towards Beard by creating certain situations that put him at a disadvantage. The idea seems to be to make him something of a lovable clown. While stopping to pee on an Arctic expedition, he gets his penis frozen to his zipper. He jumps on his skidoo to outrace an advancing polar bear but can’t start the machine because he keeps flicking the headlight switch rather than the ignition. On a train, he inadvertently assumes ownership of another guy’s bag of potato chips. He’s briefly in trouble with the law for throwing a tomato back at an elderly female protestor who threw it at him. Maybe these incidents could have an endearing effect if they didn’t seem so preposterously farcical.

Or if the character had any redeeming qualities to begin with. The quote from Rabbit is Rich at the front of the book would seem to indicate that Mr. McEwan is trying to do a British version of John Updike’s middle-aged loser. But this study of a guy who’s floundering doesn’t have any of the compassion for humanity that you find in John Updike’s work. Maybe, then, the Beard character is intended an instrument of social satire? It would seem that some such goal is on Mr. McEwan’s mind, in that we get passages highlighting the silly side of things like feminism, the media, political correctness, the public’s on-again-off-again mania for ballet lessons and for the colour pink, and so on. But there’s a snooty tone to the satire that makes you suspicious of the author’s views, rather than sympathetic to them. When Beard makes some public statements about the possible genetic differences between male and female brains as applied to maths and sciences, the public uproar, as described by Mr. McEwan is too outrageous to be taken seriously.

What Mr. McEwan does, apparently, want us to take seriously is global warming. Our Michael Beard stumbles upon a scheme that, mimicking the photosynthesis in plants, uses sunlight and water to create hydrogen and oxygen. This, as Beard sees it, could be the revolutionary process that will provide the earth with an abundant and pollution-free source of alternative energy. An impressive mission, to be sure. But what’s with the pages and pages of scientific explanation? I doubt that I’m the only one who skipped most of it. It’s not just intellectual laziness that makes a person balk at the technicalities. Such material plainly doesn’t fit in a novel. It interrupts the human interaction which is what novels are all about. At one point, we get a speech of Beard’s that outlines his scientific ideas for some seven pages. In another place, there’s a re-hash of the arguments refuting denials of global warming. These positions on the issue are old news to anybody who’s even moderately well-informed about it today.

You get the feeling that Mr. McEwan hopes that so much science will help to draw in readers who generally spurn novels: you know, the kind of guys who read only factual books. All that humanistic, mushy, relational stuff in novels – that’s for sissies. It’s as if Mr. McEwan wants to announce that he’s taken a step up to a higher, more important kind of writing. We’re dealing with crucial world issues here! However, if there’s a way of incorporating this kind of high purpose into a novel, it eludes Mr. McEwan in Solar.

Even here, though, he shows that he can still serve up some of the ingredients of a satisfying novel. In fact, the last thirty pages (approximately) of the book teem with the intriguing consequences of complicated human inter-action. Even earlier on, we occasionally get startlingly perceptive comments on the dynamics among people. After Beard has perpetrated a monstrous lie, comes the observation: "It amazed Beard how convinced he himself now was by the narrative everyone believed, and how easily he could summon the appropriate memories and emotions." When he steps forward to stop somebody who's butting into a line at an airport, Beard quickly offers a phony apology: "A rebuke poorly disguised as an apology, pretending manners to a man he would rather at that moment kill. It was good to be back in England." And this comment on one of Beard’s affairs touches on a devastating truth about many relationships: "That she loved him more than he loved her was the unarguable source of his power."

Skip the science and satire next time, Mr. McEwan, and bring on more of the mushy, relational humanism.

 

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival (Memoir) by Stanley N. Alpert, 2007

On the night of January 21, 1998, Stanley Alpert was abducted from a Manhattan street and held captive for twenty-four hours while his kidnappers made free with his bank and credit cards. And so Mr. Alpert, an assistant US attorney, turned thirty-eight while sitting blindfolded on a mattress on the floor in a sleazy New York apartment. His captors held a loaded gun on him all the time, allowing him just two bathroom breaks, and feeding him one turkey sandwich, washed down with bottles of Snapple. Doing his best to stay awake and alert, Mr. Alpert memorized any details he could glean about the location of the apartment and the identity of the thugs. Meanwhile, he had to listen to them taking turns at having sex with hookers on mattresses across the room.

As often happens in such abductions, once the initial aggression and violence had set the necessary tone, something like a conversation ensued between predators and prey. One of the thugs told Mr. Alpert they were only doing what they had to do: life was tough for black people; they didn’t get any breaks; the white people had all the luck. That’s why Mr. Alpert, the goon claimed, would soon recoup whatever they stole from him. Thinking of the long, hard hours he’d put in as a law student and a young attorney, Mr. Alpert didn’t feel that his financial success was entirely a matter of good luck. For the most part, he comes across as a left-leaning liberal with a strong commitment to social justice. However, when one of the gang opines that jail isn’t so bad, that the main thing is that you’re still living, Mr. Alpert candidly admits that he found himself wishing that the death penalty were still in force.

Since Mr. Alpert obviously lived to tell the tale, we’re not giving away any plot secrets by saying that the second half of the book deals with the efforts by his colleagues and the police to find the missing attorney and to round up and convict the kidnappers. For much of this material, of course, Mr. Alpert had to rely on interviews after-the-fact as well as on video-taped interrogations of suspects by law enforcement officers. The latter included both NYPD and FBI, given Mr. Alpert’s official position in the establishment. (In fact, the kidnappers’ discovery of his status as an assistant US attorney made all the difference to the outcome.) To his consternation, though, he found out belatedly that the first reaction of the cops was to disbelieve his story, not just because his memory of the details seemed too perfect but, more crucially, because experience had convinced the cops that anybody subjected to the kind of treatment Mr. Alpert described didn’t usually come out of it alive.

It’s fascinating to watch the various spins that the suspects put on the events. Their scenarios differ dramatically, not just from Mr. Alpert’s version, but from each others’. This business of viewing a happening from quite contrasting points of view could be called the Rashomon effect. It’s interesting, also, to get some insight into interrogation techniques from the experts in the art. And Mr. Alpert gives a thoughtful analysis of the complicated and tricky procedure of putting together a lineup in the hope of nailing an eye-witness identification.

If there are a couple of aspects of the book that make it, perhaps, something less than a terrific read, one would be that, when it comes to the supporting cast members – the detectives working on his case and his friends who gathered to keep vigil for his return – Mr. Alpert lacks the literary skill to make the various characters come through clearly. That could be due partly to the fact that there are so many of them. Most of them make just a brief appearance and, even in the case of the ones who linger longer on stage, the thumbnail sketches don’t make them live in a reader’s imagination.

Another trait that lowers the tone of the writing is the over-wrought way of describing the physical effects of fear. Thus: "stabs of fear shot through my heart" and "my head buzzed with alarm." More extensively:

It [fear] started deep in my stomach, at the level of my navel; a blackness commencing low and rising quickly through my chest, my neck, my face, all the way to the top of my head, the blackness of fainting, filled with dots and little psychedelic sparkles and a welling sense of loss of consciousness and almost nausea.

I’m not here to say that that’s not what it felt like for Mr. Alpert, just that such description seems a little too contrived and, therefore, not very convincing.

Still, for someone who isn’t (presumably) a writer first and foremost, Mr. Alpert does a very good job of weaving all the strands of his story into a viable book. At one point, it made me cry a lot; not many books can claim that achievement. Although Mr. Alpert’s form of humour falls somewhat short of killer comedy, his ironic comments here and there make him an engaging narrator. But the NYC Tourist Bureau isn’t likely amused. His references to the many muggings similar to his make you think the city’s a veritable house of horrors.

Mr. Alpert’s philosophy doesn’t go very deep. As a carpe diem type of guy he expresses great gratitude for the gift of life and it comes as no surprise that he’s a keen booster of the NYPD and the FBI. But you don’t read a book like this for the ideas. You read it to figure out how you’d fare in a similar ordeal. To that end, Mr. Alpert’s example proves very helpful. You should keep calm and alert, be as polite and matter-of-fact as possible, try to establish some personal rapport with your captors, even using a touch of humour if appropriate, but most of all, you should be an assistant US attorney.

 

A Long Way Gone (Memoir) by Ishmael Beah, 2007

So you think you had a rotten childhood? Then you might want to compare notes with Ishmael Beah.

Ishmael’s saga of horror began in January of 1993, when he was thirteen. He and some pals left his village in Sierra Leone to walk sixteen miles to another town to perform their rap routines in a talent show. Next day, they encountered refugees fleeing the boys' home village and reporting atrocities inflicted on the villagers by rebels. There followed about year of wandering for Ishamel. Unable to find his parents or any relatives, he was forced to hide in jungles and abandoned villages, travelling by night to avoid being caught, finding or stealing whatever he could by way of food. At one point, he spent a month entirely on his own.

At other times, he travelled with six or seven boys in circumstances similar to his own. The companionship helped in some ways, but the disadvantage was that villagers often mistook the boys for fighters and threatened to kill them. But they did encounter some human kindness, as for example, in the case of a fisherman who let them stay in his hut and who showed them how to heal their feet which had been badly damaged by their having to run for hours on hot sand to escape pursuers.

Eventually, they reached a town in control of the army. For a while, things looked relatively ok. But one day the lieutenant in charge gathered all the people and told them that the town was about to be besieged by rebels. Everyone’s help was needed to defend the town. All boys and men would become soldiers; women would provide back-up support. Ishmael’s induction into the army, then, wasn’t exactly coercive but there wasn’t much choice about the matter. The lieutenant made it clear that anybody who tried to flee would probably be slaughtered by rebels.

Thus began Ishmael’s military training. His tent mates were two boys aged seven and eleven. The younger one could barely tote the guns he was given. After the most rudimentary instruction, they were sent on raids against the rebels. Ishmael’s account of his first experience of killing:

I turned toward the swamp, where there were gunmen running, trying to cross over. My face, my hands, my shirt and gun were covered with blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly, as if someone was shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two young lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved, until we were ordered to retreat because we needed another strategy.

From then on, Ishmael says, it was simply kill or be killed. In their down time, the young soldiers watched Rambo-type movies and discussed the best methods of killing. Recreation involved lots of marijuana and a combination of cocaine and gun powder that they called brown-brown. They also wolfed down lots of white pills. Although he never says what they were exactly, they gave him lots of energy – preventing him from sleeping, in fact – so it sounds like they were amphetamines. However, he doesn’t say anything about sexual activity on the part of the army soldiers. We hear about raping by the rebels; are we to assume that the army soldiers were completely innocent on that score?

Certainly not in other respects. Ishmael took part in sessions of torturing captives, even burying some alive. One time he won a contest among the boy soldiers to see which of them could kill a prisoner quickest by slitting his throat. Such accomplishments, he says, made him feel special "because I was part of something that took me seriously and I was not running from anyone anymore."

You might think all that stopped suddenly when he was picked up by a UNICEF team and taken to a rehabilitation camp. Not at all. Violent fights broke out among the former boy soldiers. They’d all smuggled weapons into the camp. Some deaths ensued. Of their humanitarian rescuers, Ishmael says: "It hadn’t crossed their minds that a change of environment wouldn’t immediately make us normal boys; we were dangerous, and brain-washed to kill." Considering themselves soldiers, they refused to be pushed around by these "civilians." Plus, the boys were experiencing withdrawal from all the drugs army life entailed. One thing that particularly infuriated Ishmael was the constant refrain whereby the camp personnel kept trying to assuage the boys’ supposed guilt feelings: "What happened wasn’t your fault."

As the existence of this book would suggest, though, he did eventually become rehabilitated, thanks largely to the patience and kindness of a nurse who acted as confidant to him and eventually showed him the way back to trust in other human beings. Even so, when he had re-established himself in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and started attending school, his life was overturned yet again by the armed violence that reached the city. If he couldn’t somehow escape it, there was the temptation to return to the army. Some of his former companions as boy soldiers did just that.

Just before his seventeenth birthday, on a trip to New York to speak to a UN conference in December, Ishmael was stumped by his first encounters with things like elevators. A more serious problem was that he hadn’t been provided with any warm clothes. He’d heard the word ‘winter’ in Shakespeare but he hadn’t fully realized what it meant. One thing greatly puzzled him: what was "this white stuff falling from the sky?" When told that it was snow, he remembered having seen snow in movies about Christmas, so he figured it must always be Christmas hereabouts.

Today, Mr. Beah lives in New York and works for childrens’ rights causes. He tells his tale in a steady, measured, matter-of-fact voice that makes the evil he experienced more real than if he had tried to heighten it with fancy writing.

 

Wish I Could Be There (Autobiography) by Allen Shawn, 2007

Any book about somebody’s attempts to negotiate a life through a complex web of neuroses offers a lot of potential appeal for us here at Dilettante’s Diary. But there was a special reason for interest in Allen Shawn’s account of his struggles with agoraphobia: his notable connections in the world of arts and letters. While Mr. Shawn himself is a distinguished composer, pianist and college prof, his more famous brother is the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. Their father was none other than the eminent William Shawn who, as editor of The New Yorker for decades, occupied one of the highest perches at the summit of American journalism.

Allen Shawn’s book serves up fascinating details about the inner life of that extraordinary family. In fact, he admits up front that the dynamics within his family probably had a lot to do with the way his agoraphobia developed. As I understand it, the current thinking on such matters is that a person may be genetically pre-disposed to some such problem, but things like nurturing and early traumas will affect the way the problem shows itself in day-to-day living. Mr. Shawn links agorophobia to his family context through the current saying: "Don’t go there!"

That marvellously expresses both the agoraphobic’s fear of new experiences and the ethos that prevailed in Mr. Shawn’s family of origin. When it came to conversation in the Shawn household, euphemism ruled. Sickness and sex could not be discussed. Severe control of circumstances and repression of possibly upsetting influences were demanded. "I felt that huge passions and angers that somehow couldn’t be mentioned were seething within me and in the house and that the world was raw and crude but had to be referred to politely in perfect sentences."

A stunning example of avoidance in the household was the mystery surrounding the treatment of Allen’s twin sister, Mary. Thought to be "retarded" in the parlance of the day, she is now is considered autistic, with other complicating psychological conditions. The unfortunate child was sent off to a residential school at about the age of eight, with no explanation to her twin brother as to what was happening and only annual family visits with her thereafter.

In retrospect, though, the greatest secret of all had to be the fact of their father’s leading a second life as unofficial husband to another woman (Lillian Ross, a New Yorker writer) while maintaining his position as husband and father in the household that included Allen, his brother and their mother, Cecille. Although the boys' mother knew of the situation with the other woman and suffered terribly from it, Cecille kept up a brave face to the point that it wasn’t until shortly before the father’s death, in 1992, that Allen had any inkling of the duplicity that had been going on. He expresses himself as grateful for the long-delayed communication with his father on the subject, and he understands his father’s view that to have broken open the topic when the boys were being raised would have been too hard on their mother. But the son can’t help thinking that the tip-toeing around this elephant in the room, the constant undercurrent of tension that that involved, might have had much to do with the development of his own fears and insecurities.

All these details about Allen Shawn’s personal life and his family background make for very good reading. However, roughly one half of the book consists of scientific discussion of various phobias and neuroses. The science is neither new nor intriguing. It’s all stuff that should surely be very familiar to any moderately well-informed reader. Do we need to hear again what Darwin had to say about the animal origins of our emotions? Or about Pavlov’s experiments? Or Freud’s theories on infant sexuality, among other things? A brief reminder of these well-known tenets of Western thought would have sufficed. But Mr. Shawn discusses them at length and in a writing style that’s definitely not up to New Yorker standards. His prose in these sections has that flat, encyclopedic slam of popular science for the lay person that typically runs along the lines of: "While some studies have found that....on the other hand recent research has shown...." At such points, I keep wondering: who does Mr. Shawn think he’s writing for?

Maybe the simple conclusion is that he isn’t writing for me. Or that he just couldn’t come up with enough material to fill a book with the personal stuff that I find so appealing. Such as his observation that his music seems to express his dark side. And this comment on parenting: "In retrospect, I think, that shielding me didn’t work well, but I do know that dealing with growing children is like being in a batting cage with ball after ball being thrown at you. Amazingly, the score gets kept for a very long time."

Of all the family vignettes presented, my favourite would have to be the one that has the esteemed editor sitting in the living room on a Sunday morning in his bathrobe, correcting proofs for The New Yorker. Occasionally, he looks up over his spectacles to ask little Allen, who is working on the floor, how his drawing is going. Although controlling and regimented in so many ways, the father was a model of tenderness towards his children. Sometimes, he’d even give little Allen finished proofs from The New Yorker so that he could pretend to edit them. The kid loved taking the pages of some of the best writing to be found in America and scribbling on them "no good" and "terrible".

 

The Exception (Mystery) by Christian Jungersen, (English translation by Anna Paterson, 2007)

If you’re looking for a good mystery, you may wonder at times if you’ve wandered into the wrong book. Not that this one doesn’t have a strong mysterious element. Three women who work in an office have received death threats. Other weird things start happening – like a box of blood turning up on the office shelves. And then a guy gets killed and it looks like one of the women was the intended victim. All this is happening to people connected with a Danish organization, based in Copenhagen, that tries to promote world-wide awareness of genocide, both current and historical. The obvious assumption is that some war criminal is trying to get back at the organization for publicizing his crimes. Scary, right?

But much of the text concerns the dynamics among the four women staffers and their young male boss in the Copenhagen office. Pages and pages are taken up in discussions about whether or not the door between two sections of the office should be open or closed. One woman wants it open because she feels isolated when it’s closed; another woman wants it closed because she doesn’t want to sit in a draft. The bickering gets so trivial and drawn out that you might start asking yourself: am I actually reading this?

And yet, there’s a kind of mesmerizing truth to it. Author Jungersen proves himself something of an expert on inter-office drama. It’s tremendously believable the way the women try to be kind and forgiving when one of them raises a personal problem, but each one bristles as soon as anybody infringes on what she considers her own responsibilities. The brash male boss comes across just as believably, with his arms-length approach to the nitty-gritty of office business and his impatient urge for easy answers to problems that arise among the women.

As our take on the proceedings shifts from one person’s point of view to another, the overall picture begins to take on a Roshamon-like quality of an optical illusion. Office matters get so confusing that a psychiatrist introduces the idea of Disassociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as "Split Personality"). Perhaps, the suggestion goes,one of the office workers is sending the death threats in the person of an identity that remains hidden from her customary persona.

Meanwhile, we’re treated to great whacks of information about genocide, much of it new to this reader. (Did you know about the slaughter of Germans, mostly by the Russians, in much of Europe after the Second World War?) Sometimes, several pages are taken up with an article that one of the women’s writing. We hear a lot about the parallels between human and animal behaviour. Among other issues that get tossed around, are idealism, rationalization, egoism, Holocaust denial and something described as the grape theory of moral choices. My guess is that it’s thanks to these heavy issues that the book has been a huge success in Europe: readers who would spurn an ordinary mystery can feel that they’re reading something important and serious here. Which is not to say that only Europeans consider the book significant. The New Yorker gave Mr. Jungersen the full two-page treatment on the publication of the book’s English translation.

But it started to lose me around page 400, with the result that I skipped rapidly through the final 100 pages. For me, it simply doesn’t hang together in a convincing way, its noble aspirations not withstanding. It begins to seem that the writer can’t wait to impress you with all he’s learned about genocide, but he hasn’t successfully melded that theme to a novel’s special requirements. Such as character. Two of the office workers who are close friends do not stand out distinctly as individuals, except for the fact that one of them suffers from severe arthritis. Neither of them – or anybody else, for that matter – comes through with a strong visual presence.

Which is not to say that the writing doesn’t have its merits in a novelistic way. Mr. Jungersen includes very telling details, almost by way of parenthetical comment. While one woman’s listening to a doctor’s stern advice about how to get her act together, she’s thinking mainly about the fact that he seems to be gay and she’s wondering whether or not he has a lover. Another striking moment occurs at a kindergarten when a woman who’s picking up her kid studies the room's simplistic pictures of streets and houses while she’s simultaneously hearing terrible news on her cell phone. And, by way of incidental pleasures, the book offers some insights into life in Copenhagen. Would you ever have suspected that officials of an NGO would ride their bicycles to an important meeting across town? Or that they’d take the train to an out-of-town meeting, rather than drive?

In trying to figure out why the novel didn’t have the impact for me that it did, apparently, for many other readers world-wide, I wondered if perhaps the translation loses some flair or personality that the original Danish conveyed. For the most part, the writing has a dull, thudding quality. Which would be ok, except that the material goes wonky. One of the office workers becomes a sort of cat burglar, dressing in black and sneaking into the home of a co-worker while everybody’s sleeping, in an attempt to find out about the co-worker’s private affairs. Another woman from the same office assumes a fake identity and infiltrates a choir rehearsal to try to suss out info about a co-worker’s background. Towards the end of the book, there’s been so much talk about insanity, paranoia and self-deception that, when the horrifying and violent climax starts to roll out, I’m thinking the victim’s going to suddenly realize it was all a delusion. Not a very satisfying denouement for a mystery!

 

Why Socrates Died (History) by Robin Waterfield, 2009

At risk of coming across as smart-ass, I’d like to provide my own answer to the question implied in the book’s title. Given that philosophy looms large in this book, I’ll put my answer in the form of a syllogism:

- All human beings must die.

- Socrates was a human being.

- Therefore Socrates died.

Ok, not so clever. But maybe the point could be made that, in the interests of strict logic, the book’s title might have read something like: Why Socrates Died When He Did or Why Socrates Died the Way He Did. On those grounds, Mr. Waterfield provides some very good reading.

Mind you, it’s a bit difficult for me to gauge the success of the book in terms of its subtitle: Dispelling The Myths. The trouble is that, having been absent from school the day they did Ancient Greece in Sarnia back in the 1950s, I am not entirely sure what the Socrates myths are. My assumption, based on my reading of this book, is that Mr. Waterfield wants to disabuse us of the notion that Socrates was some kind of pure and idealistic hero who was executed by an ignorant populace for no good reason. The main import of the book seems to be that the democrats of Athens had lots of good reasons, on their own terms, for what they did to Socrates. However, the difficulty with this attempt to get to the truth of the matter is that our only sources of information about the trial of Socrates – mainly the works of Plato and Xenophon – were written largely to exonerate the great man. So a lot of inference and interpolation is necessarily involved in Mr. Waterfield’s re-construction of what actually went down.

Much time is spent in building up the background and the political currents to show that many influences were tending towards Socrates’s doom. (I may be over-simplifying here, but I think this is the gist of it.) He wasn’t exactly what you’d call a card-carrying democrat. His version of the ideal government was one conducted by experts who were especially wise and well trained in matters of governance. This was a very unwelcome view in a democracy that was struggling to re-establish itself in the face of an oligarchic coup. (The view of some Athenians that it was foolish to let the stupidity of the masses determine your government reminds me of the cynical comment, often heard lately, that the best argument against democracy is to have a conversation with a typical voter.)

Worse still, Socrates was known to have been a kind of mentor to some of the people who were notorious for their attempts to undermine the democracy, most notably the dazzling and flamboyant Alcibiades. On top of which, Athenians were feeling that people like Alcibiades were to blame for the nation’s recent ignominious defeats in war, especially at the hands of Sparta. A state that was feeling as insecure as Athens couldn’t afford to take an indulgent view of wiseacres like Socrates who, by means of their fiendishly clever teaching tricks, were encouraging young men to challenge the wisdom of their ancestors and to upset the traditions which had long been taken as the surest safeguards of Athens’ prosperity and longevity.

But rather than the specifics of the charges against Socrates and the handling of his case, it’s the overall picture of the times and the society, the mores and the customs – especially in comparison to conditions today – that interested me most in this book. The charge of "impiety" against Socrates, although ludicrous in terms of any actual beliefs or behaviours on his part, swayed people so much because it was practically impossible to separate religion and society. The state was seen as depending on the benevolence of the gods to thrive; hence the need for everyone to render the required obeisance to the divinities. If anybody was seen not to revere the gods sufficiently – as was wrongly suspected of Socrates – then that person was seen to be threatening the well being of Athens. (Remind you of arguments about the connection between religion and patriotism in any nearby country that you can think of?)

And when it came to the courts, Mr. Waterfield makes it clear that convictions weren’t based on the kind of evidentiary proof that we in the Western world require today. An accused could be convicted largely on the basis of such factors as innuendo, association and rhetoric. You could, in effect, be convicted of nothing more objective than the crime of being "un-Athenian," of being "different." In that context, it becomes very clear how the "Youth Movement" spear-headed by people like some of Socrates’ followers threatened the old guard. The kind of shuddering and quaking described sounds very much like the reaction from the conservatives in our culture during the so-called youth rebellion of the 1960s and 70s.

In terms of recurring motifs down through history, nothing could be more striking than the claims of the oligarchs that their attempt to wrest control away from the democrats was intended only for a successful conclusion to the war. How often have we heard that one, even in our own times! Mr. Waterfield quotes a very similar motivation from General Francisco Franco who said, of his intentions towards Spain: "The Fatherland must be renewed, all evil uprooted, all bad seed extirpated. This is not a time for scruples."

Regarding the question of Socrates having corrupted youth, Mr. Waterfield’ gives considerable room to a discussion of the relevance of homosexuality. It seems that it was accepted in the higher reaches of ancient Athenian society that rich, older men who were deemed to be wise, would act as mentors and lovers (in some sense) to beautiful, promising young men. Sexual intercourse, I gather, might or might not be involved. If it were, apparently, society turned a blind eye to it – which would seem to indicate that it wasn’t exactly condoned but it wasn’t condemned either. ("Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"??)  As for Socrates, the point is frequently made throughout the book that he flirted in an erotic, homosexual way with the young men whom he wanted to attract as students. Alcibiades, for instance, was unquestionably seen as Socrates’ lover for a period of some years. Yet, Mr. Waterfield says that it’s not likely that Socrates, given his disdain for mere physical pleasure, would have consummated the love in a sexual way. Homosexual flirtation and love but no sex? I’m not sure where that leaves us.

However, my bigger problem with the book is the section dealing with the wars raging in Greece at the time, particularly what is known as the Peloponnesian War. At the heart of the book, about 70 pages are given over to discussion of battles, treaties, generals, betrayals, double-crossings and such military affairs. While necessary to establish the troubled political climate that led to Socrates’ trial, the material can be very hard to follow for somebody not well-versed in the history. Clearly, Mr. Waterfield is steeped in it but he seems to be making the mistake of thinking that most of us know it nearly as well as he does. The fact that no map is given makes it almost impossible to know what’s going on. Further befuddlement comes from the fact that different names can be used for the same locations and peoples. It’s as if somebody who knew little about the US was reading a history that started throwing around words like "Yankees," "Hillbillies," and "Manhattanites."

To have provided a more fleshed-out history of the wars would, perhaps, have made the book too long and would have constituted too extensive a digression from the main theme, i.e. the trial of Socrates. And yet, I can’t deny a sneaking suspicion that, even in terms of that theme, the book’s a little too lengthy. While reading, I was often getting the feeling that we kept coming back to reiterations of some of the key issues: the influence of culture and politics on justice, the opposition between oligarchs and democrats, the inter-generational conflict and so on. My feeling is that Mr. Waterfield could have made his point more succinctly. The book would have been shorter, but better.

 

Flaubert (Biography) by Frederick Brown, 2006

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) doesn’t rank especially high in my personal pantheon of literary giants. Of course, I once read his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, and was duly impressed. But it wasn’t the kind of book that left me dying to know more about the author. However, I vaguely recall hearing something about his attending to his sexual needs in a rather business-like way, while remaining unmarried and living with his mother. When this biography came along, then, it seemed time to quell my own natural distaste for peeking under the covers of anybody’s bed, and to discover the facts for the sake of readers of this website.

Well, Frederick Brown’s biography delivers on that point, and then some! We get copious details and quotes from letters regarding Flaubert's affairs with various devoted mistresses. And lots of reference to his frequenting of prostitutes. (Other sources refer to Flaubert’s dalliance with male prostitutes but such a proclivity doesn’t emerge very clearly in this biography.) While whoring his way through brothels on a trip to the Middle East, he was penning ardent letters to his possessive and domineering mama, vowing that he would never leave her for any other woman, insisting that no woman could ever replace her in his affections. Is there some sort of contradiction there, or am I the only one who tends to think that momma’s boys don’t usually exercise their heterosexuality so flagrantly?

By way of further paradox, even while demonstrating said heterosexuality in grand style, he often complained that he was cursed with a feminine sensibility, a susceptibility to attacks of "nerves". Of course, he had reason to be anxious about his well being, because of his epilepsy – which he seems never to have fully acknowledged for what it was. It required him to take drugs that were quite debilitating at times, and which, not being very effective, still left him at risk of suffering seizures that could interfere in his life in major ways.

Over and above such personal details about the man, one of the book's main attractions is the long, leisurely soak in the artistic, political and social world of France in the mid-1800s. (You may remember that that was when things in England were starting to come unstuck as a result of the deliberations of one trouble-maker known as Charles Darwin.) Mind you, Mr. Brown does give rather too many details about the political and every other aspect of the society. Admittedly, it’s important to know how our man, Monsieur Flaubert, felt about these events, but we get disquisitions that take us far from the main subject. In a section on the Franco-Prussian war, for example, two pages describe the machinations and plotting of generals and their armies, with scrupulous attention to detail. While describing Flaubert’s tour of the Middle East, the author gives us a whole page to describe the later career and national significance of a fellow Flaubert just happened to meet along the way.

As with so many biographies these days, the author’s wish to make his tome the definitive and exhaustive authority on the subject ends up producing a work that is, at times, definitely exhausting. Which is why, to be completely candid, I didn’t read every word, or even every page of the 570 in total. But there was plenty to capture the imagination in the parts I did read. Like the meetings of the group of writers who formed a sort of club around Flaubert, some of whom we’ve come to know in their own right – mile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Turgeynev, Edmond and Jules Goncourt. Seems that if people fell behind on their cable tv fees back in the day, they had to entertain themselves with interesting talk. So these guys got together regularly for long discussions.

The writer who probably helped Flaubert the most, though, was an older woman. George Sand acted as a kind of mentor to Flaubert, even offering to bail him out financially when his family’s fortunes collapsed. Her advice regarding his writing, however, stands as an ironic testament to changing tastes in literature. She chastised him for not telling his readers what he thought of his characters. She wanted more authorial explanation about what was going on. Flaubert knew himself well enough to reject that advice utterly. And which is the writer whose works mean anything today?

In fact, it was Flaubert’s authorial distance that bothered people about Madame Bovary. It wasn’t just that the eponymous heroine was involved in an adulterous affair. Rather, it was the author’s refusal to condemn her, his presenting her story as something worth paying attention to simply because it happened to a human being, without trying to jump in with a moral or a lesson. But that detachment didn’t sit well with the Establishment. What was required, it was generally felt by the cognoscenti, was the role of a "Reasoner": one character in the book who commented on the action and told us how appalled we were supposed to be about it.

That was the crux of the legal case taken by the state against Flaubert with regard to the book. Although the judges ultimately decided in his favour, you get the feeling that they’re treading very carefully in this preamble to their decision:

Given that Gustave Flaubert protests his respect for propriety and everything connected with religious morality; given that his book has apparently not, like certain other works, been written for the soul purpose of pandering to sensual passions, to the spirit of license and debauchery, or to ridicule things that must be surrounded with universal respect; given that his only fault was to have lost sight on occasion of the rules that every self-respecting writer should not violate, and to have forgotten that literature, like art, will accomplish the good it is called upon to do only if it be chaste and pure in substance as well as in form.....

Another intriguing thing about Madame Bovary was the fact that Flaubert found it so difficult to write. He complained constantly to his friends about the pain of trying to force himself through to the end. The difficulty, it seems, is that he’d decided on a spare, pared-down style, focusing just on facts and realistic details. Apparently, he felt this was the way the story had to be told. His more characteristic style was florid and high-flying, as in his fantastical book on Saint Anthony of the Desert. As witnessed in the following quote from one of his writer friends, an important requirement for prose, in Flaubert’s view, was that it flow smoothly: "For him a book is to be judged by reading it aloud....If its pauses don’t accord with the natural play of human lungs, it’s worthless."

If only Mr. Brown, the biographer, had taken that message to heart! He is not gifted with what could be called a limpid, lucid style. Several of his sentences groan under the weight of information packed into them. For instance:

A letter dated July 1843 from Dr Flaubert scolding his gullible son for having allowed himself, like some "provincial simpleton," to be swindled by a confidence man or a whore (we don’t know which or how) and concealing the misadventure from a father in whom he should trust could only have made Gustave more fearful of behaving like a simpleton at his public examination.

And:

Somewhere in the Gustave Flaubert whose sensibility perched at extremes of enchantment with both the material world and platonism, glorifying unruly, sociopathic, large-lunged genius or fussing over stylistic minutiae as obsessively as a Byzantine grammarian – somewhere in all that Louise looked, against all reason, for the makings of a husband.

 

Also:

After Louis Bouilhet, down-at-heel and lonely in Paris, which he had always found overwhelming, and thoroughly disheartened by theater politics, set up house with Lonie Le Parfait thirty miles downriver at Mantes in May 1857, Feydeau, a man as self-congratulatory as Bouilhet was self-critical, became Flaubert’s most constant companion during the Paris season.

It’s like sitting by the fire, listening to somebody who keeps putting you to sleep with his ponderous manner, but you’re struggling to stay awake because he has such interesting stuff to say.

 

How Jesus Became Christian (Religious Studies) by Barrie Wilson, 2008

Here at Dilettante’s Diary we welcome any book that can help to shed light on the great mystery: how did Christianity, from its humble origins, become the world-wide phenomenon that it is today? Barrie Wilson makes a valuable contribution to the discussion. Mind you, Mr. Wilson isn’t the first to suggest that Christianity as we know it today owes much to the influence of Paul (otherwise known as Saul of Tarsus). Mr. Wilson’s unique approach is to show how vastly the religion of Paul, the Proto-Orthodoxy of today as it’s called here, differs from the movement started by Jesus. In Mr. Wilson’s view, they’re effectively two separate religions, with hardly anything in common. All that’s left of the historical Jesus in proto-Orthodoxy, as Mr. Wilson sees it, is the nominal connection with Christ as its founder.

Basing his theory mostly on the Gospel of Matthew, the one among the four gospels that is most obviously addressed to Jews, Mr. Wilson argues persuasively that Jesus was a thoroughly Jewish rabbi who taught nothing contrary to the Torah. Rather, the main import of his message was that people should not only keep the Law but should strive for a more perfect fulfillment of it. Hence the high moral tone of the exhortation summed up in what we call the "Sermon on the Mount." Jesus took this line, Mr. Wilson contends, because he felt the time was near for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. The corrupting influences of Hellenization and Roman rule would be eradicated, all evil would be dispelled and people would live henceforth at peace under a regime in which God’s law prevailed.

In all of this, the important point was what Jesus taught, not who he was perceived to be. Paul, on the other hand, paid hardly any attention to the teachings of the historical Jesus (whom Paul had never met). Paul’s religion was based almost entirely on his personal insights flowing from the mystical encounter he had with the risen Christ. What mattered most to Paul was the identity of Jesus as the divine/human saviour whose death and resurrection had redeemed all humanity from sin. As have several other authors, Mr. Wilson notes that Paul’s religion incorporates some elements of pagan cults flourishing at the time: the God/Man nature, for instance, and the meal commemorating the redemptive sacrifice. One of the selling points of Paul’s program is that Gentiles can buy into it without having to take on the onerous obligations of the Torah.

Virtually nothing, then, is left of Judaism in Paul’s Proto-Orthodoxy. The kind of religion Jesus was advocating survived, after his death, under the leadership of his brother James. It lasted only a couple of centuries longer, as a practised by the people known as the Ebionites. They attempted to live according to Jesus’ teachings while maintaining their Jewishness and their allegiance to the Torah. Ultimately, their movement could not withstand the advances of the juggernaut of Proto-Orthodoxy.

Many different historical/cultural factors enter into the explanation of how the one movement triumphed over the other. But the most important question is: why do people now generally tend to conflate the religion of Jesus with Christianity? Why do we assume that Christianity as we know it today is based on the historical Jesus? The answer, says Mr. Wilson, is the New Testament document known as The Acts of the Apostles. As do many scholars today, he identifies this hallowed text as essentially a work of fiction written by the so-called "Luke", a disciple of Paul, the same Luke who is the author of the Gospel of that name. This writer’s purpose in Acts was precisely to create the illusion that Paul’s religion was compatible with that of the Jesus movement. Hence the so-called "Council of Jerusalem," the supposed meeting where Peter and Paul agreed to their different norms for living out Jesus’ message. Clearly, though, no such meeting ever happened – the most obvious proof being that Paul, in his letters, is completely oblivious to the decisions that were purportedly taken at the meeting. If it weren’t for the fictional conniving of Acts, then, people would see today that Christianity as such has little to do with the religion of Jesus.

The fact that this is not clearly seen amounts to what Mr. Wilson calls a cover-up conspiracy. Church authorities through the centuries wanted to maintain a sort of historical connection to Judaism but they wanted people to believe that Jesus essentially repudiated Judaism – although it was Paul who did so, not Jesus. This led to all sorts of pernicious results, not the least of which is anti-Semitism. Mr. Wilson goes so far as to suggest that anti-Semitism at its roots consists of a desire to eliminate Jewishness that stands as a witness to the fraud perpetrated by Christianity.

While hardly in a position to evaluate all the theological and historical nuances of Mr. Wilson’s theory, I can say that it’s impressively well-researched and thought-provoking. However, some things about the book bother me. First, there’s Mr. Wilson’s contention that the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is calling for the establishment of a Kingdom that will overthrow the existing civil authority: "This position was politically subversive, for it contained strong anti-Roman elements within its popular appeal. It pitted the Jewish expectation of the end-time, as construed by Jesus, against the massive might of the Roman Empire with its much touted Pax Romana." (p. 93) I can see that this Jesus is calling for a moral and ethical revolution based on the Torah, but I don’t see any evidence, in the texts cited, for the political dimension Mr. Wilson reads into it. I’d be willing to admit that my blindness on this point might be the result of so many years of tutelage on the theme that Jesus’ message was other-worldly, if Mr. Wilson could provide evidence to make me see otherwise. But he doesn’t.

A more fundamental problem with the book, for me, is its grasp of the historical Jesus. The author recognizes that the letters of Paul constitute the first writings about Jesus and that the gospels come decades later. However, he seems to accept the historicity of Matthew’s gospel without question – allowing for the obvious exception of the infancy narratives. Mr. Wilson acknowledges no awareness of much of the recent scholarship that questions whether the gospels have any substantial claim on historical fact. My understanding is that some of the best thinking on biblical issues to date considers the gospels to be collections of stories made up to meet certain didactical needs as the occasion required, rather than being anything like an authoritative record of what Jesus said and did. (A popular treatment of this topic would be John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels.) So I find Mr. Wilson’s reliance on Matthew as an authentic account of the historical Jesus unconvincing. All well and good if Mr. Wilson were treating this Jesus as a fictional creation within the "novel" of Matthew. Then one could very well examine how the portrayal of this character did or didn’t match with what Paul proclaimed about him. But the urgency of Professor Wilson’s message would be seriously undermined.

What bothers me most about the book, though, is its iffy organization. Mr. Wilson does not deal efficiently with one aspect of his thesis and then move on to the next one. While the titles of the sections of the book give the impression that the material is divided along logical lines, the divisions are too fluid, to the point of being illusory. Mr. Wilson keeps circling back and saying virtually the same things repeatedly. This applies both to major themes and individual passages. Of the latter, a few examples:

p. xi – "How Jesus Became Christian is intended for general readers who are curious about the origins of Christianity, who are interested in the big picture, and who are perplexed by some of the same mysteries that have intrigued me over the years."

Then, just three pages later:

p. xiv – "This book is written for readers who are curious, who possess an open mind, and who like to savour different possibilities about the way history may have unfolded."

Consider also this pair of excerpts:

p. 221 – "Had he [Marcion] not advised celibacy for his followers, consistent with Paul’s ascetic theology, it [Marcionite Christianity] might have lasted much longer."

And six pages on:

p. 227 – "Marcion also insisted that members of his churches accept celibacy and refrain from marriage. If Marcion had not insisted on this particular self-limiting discipline, perhaps his churches, in time, would have rivaled other forms of early Christianity in size."

Another couple of examples:

p. 228 – "The Old Testament is often stereotyped by Christians – then and now – as containing harsh laws from a stern God full of wrath and condemnation."

And on the next page:

p. 229 – "Still, stereotypes persist, with some contending that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh God while the God of the New Testament is one of love."

You get the feeling that Mr. Wilson, a professor of humanities and religious studies at York University in Toronto, thinks he’s addressing, not an attentive, alert reader, but a class of dozing students who have to be constantly reminded of what the prof is trying to say. Apart from the insult to the reader, though, is any harm done? Yes, it seems to me. The reader begins to question the intellectual rigour of the writer. If he can’t keep his thesis organized clearly enough to proceed from one point to the other without this constant back-tracking, you can’t help beginning to have doubts about the quality of his thinking as a whole.

And speaking of intellectual rigour, Mr. Wilson gets one thing quite wrong. Regarding the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, he makes the point that this does not refer, as most non-Catholics think, to the "virgin birth" of Jesus, but rather to the conception of his mother, Mary. So far so good. However, in his glossary of terms at the end of the book, Mr. Wilson states that the concept of the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was conceived seemingly without male involvement – another "virgin birth," in other words. Mr. Wilson seems to base this statement on the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Jesus. Whether or not any such myth is contained in that document I don’t know, but such a concept has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Properly understood, it means that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin that afflicts the rest of humanity, thereby requiring that they be saved. The doctrine has nothing whatever to say about whether, in physical terms, Mary’s conception took place sexually or otherwise.

A small error? Maybe. On the other hand, it might not be nit-picking to point out such a mistake in a book, the main import of which is to complain that everybody has been getting things wrong for two millennia.

 

The Best Laid Plans (Novel) by Terry Fallis, 2007

This novel became something of a cause clbre in Canadian letters in that, although it was self-published by author Terry Fallis, it won the prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal for humour in 2008. We heard much about the matter from Tom Allen, who was the host of Music and Company, back in the days when CBC’s Radio Two used to favour us with excellent programming. Mr. Allen loved telling about how this friend of his (a member of his hockey team, if I recall correctly) had out-smarted the know-it-alls of the publishing world with this coup.

It’s not hard to see why this satire on political life in Ottawa won the medal. Mr. Fallis certainly has a way with one-liners. About one particularly aggressive feminist, he says that she "had a knack for making even the most progressive and enlightened man feel like a polygamous porn magnate fighting universal suffrage." One sleazy character, he says, "wore his hair slicked back with enough petroleum gel to heat Iqaluit for a week." At another point, the beleaguered narrator says: "As I lay, eyes open, chest tight, what I initially mistook as the soothing sound of the prevailing west wind turned out to be my own hyperventilation." I particularly admire the comic finesse in a passage where said narrator wakes up the morning after a particularly disastrous day:

You know how sometimes, after a really bleak and demoralizing experience, when all hope seemed lost, you awake from a fitful sleep to a sunny morning and just like that, the world doesn’t seem quite so malevolent?.....Well, that didn’t happen to me.....I had absolutely none of those redeeming and hopeful thoughts and feelings. None. Nada. Zilch. I was positioned directly in front of the fan, and a whole lot of shit was arcing my way.

And it’s not just the quips that show Mr. Fallis’ flair for comedy. He can set up a story and characters with considerable potential for hilarity. Our narrator, one Daniel Addison, a former hack in the office of the leader of the federal Liberal party, now finds himself saddled with finding a candidate to make a hopeless run for election in a riding which has been held by the Conservatives forever. He eventually persuades a crotchety Scots engineering prof to stand as Liberal candidate on the clear understanding that there’s no possibility of actually winning. The campaign office is Addison’s dilapidated car. The team, in addition to Addison and the Scot, consists of the elderly woman who has valiantly and futilely carried the Liberal colours in five previous elections in the riding, the woman’s granddaughter, plus two oddball engineering students who get themselves up in outfits that make them look like Hell's Angels crossed with neon punk rockers. Mr. Fallis has great fun with the fatuous pronouncements of party leaders and Prime Ministers. He also wrings some good laughs out of the oddities that crop up in the running of a constituency office.

Most outrageously, as the election nears and the Scot’s character becomes more pronounced, it looks like Canada may be faced with the prospect of an MP who doesn’t give a damn about public opinion, who speaks the truth and does what he thinks is right, regardless of the consequences. Such a politician in high places? Hard to think of a more promising satirical premise.

Then why was the book a bit of a struggle for me to get through?

It could, in part, have something to do with the fact that there’s too much print squeezed onto each page. That’s a temptation for any self-publishing author who wants to cut expenses. But it can make ploughing through the material feel more like work than if the pages were less crammed and turned more quickly.

However, my problems with the book likely have less to do with such a practical matter and more to do with artistic or aesthetic issues. For one thing, the Scot gets tiresome. Especially his talk. When speaking of his dread of teaching English literature to first year engineering students, he says: "These kids are so fixated on engineerin’, beer, and nurses that they wouldn’t know literature if they threw up on it. Their idea of a pleasin’ read is Kinematics and Dynamics of Planar Machinery. Such myopia I cannot again endure. I cannae do it again. I won’t." After 250-plus pages, this corny accent wears on the nerves.

But the more serious problem is the Scot's character. Having started out as a contrarian and curmudgeon, he gradually mellows; it turns out he’s a very astute politician; he makes the right decisions on everything; he even has an enlightened take on the women’s movement. I’m all for characters developing and deepening in the course of a novel, but it’s somewhat disconcerting when the amusing crank you started out with gets canonized.

The more fundamental trouble with the book, however, is that there seems to be some confusion about its identity. I realize here that a reviewer runs the risk of criticizing a book for not being the book that the reviewer wants it to be, rather than taking the book as it is. So I'd like to avoid that sin, if only I could be sure what kind of book this one wants to be. We start out with what looks like farce or high comedy. In trying to pin-point a book's nature, a comparison can be helpful. The closest one I can think of here would be the work of P.J. Wodehouse, notably his Bertie and Jeeves series. Our narrator, Daniel Addison, isn’t quite as much of a twit as Bertie Wooster. After all, Addison knows lots about the ins-and-outs of political Ottawa. But he’s disaster-prone in much the same way as Bertie – "the best laid plans...." indeed! The Scot could even, in his own way, be seen as something of a Jeeves. Not that the Scot has any of Jeeves’ supercilious hauteur, but there’s a similar motif in the way the older, wiser character acts as a foil to the young, reckless one.

All of which would seem to promise a light, frothy entertainment. However, you get the impression that the writer, rather than limiting himself to the creation of one perfectly-crafted gem of a certain type, is saying to himself: this is my big opportunity to put in everything I want to say about Ottawa, so here goes. We get information about things like advance polls and party discipline. Discussion of trade issues comes up, also Reaganomics and matters like Lyndon Johnson’s reaction to Lester Pearson’s objections to the bombing in Vietnam. We’re exposed to a theory that politics follows Newton’s laws of motion. At one point, we’re swept up in the majesty of the Parliamentary library, not to mention an awe-inspiring introduction to the Commons itself. All very informative and edifying, but somehow you feel the author has cut you adrift. At the outset of this voyage, he offered what looked like a breezy, amusing cruise – an escape from reality, essentially – and now he’s lecturing you about all the important sights along the way.

As for a romance that narrator Addison embarks on, it’s perfunctory at best. Nothing of any interest is conveyed about the relationship. It looks like something that the author thought he should toss in, along with many other ingredients, to round out the book. Like a politician who’s trying so hard to please everybody that he sends out a very confused message.

Postscript: It occurs to me that the above review doesn't deal with perhaps the most problematic aspect of the novel. That's because I didn't know what to say about the book's blatantly anti-Tory slant. At first, it struck me only that the writer was eliminating a large portion of potential readership in Canada. So maybe this had something to do with the author's difficulty in finding a mainstream publisher.

But what if an American writer published a book that was scathingly anti-Republican? Would that scupper the book's chances of success? I think not.Obviously, the US is so much larger that, to cut out one huge sector of the potential readership, still leaves many millions of others.

But I think the crucial point is that, when it comes to politics, we do things differently here. Canadian politics isn't so radically partisan. It's not just that we have more than two parties vying for election. Rather, it's that the parties are more polite to each other. (With the exception, of course, of the shenanigans during Question Period in the House of Commons. That's just a show for the cameras; it's not an expression of the genuine political dynamics of the country.) Maybe that's because, being a smaller country, we have to try get along. So it makes a reader recoil slightly to see one party made to look so bad in a novel -- even if the  reader has no particular sympathy for that party. It looks so un-Canadian!

 

In the Blood (Memoir) by Andrew Motion, 2006

You might well expect that Andrew Motion, England’s poet laureate from 1999 to 2009, would be capable of dishing up a readable memoir. What you might not be prepared for is the book’s dramatic opening. It’s an ordinary day in Andrew’s teens, his mum’s getting him ready to attend a party in another village, when something that looks to be shaping up as a major tragedy intervenes. Noting that his childhood seemed to be ending that day, the author abandons the scene without telling you how the apparent tragedy turned out. If you don’t have good control of your curiosity, you’ll race ahead to the final chapter to see what happened. I decided it would be better to take the unfolding of the tale the way the author intended.

And I’m glad I did. From that fateful day, he casts back to his earliest impressions of life in this world. It mostly a rural scene, as his family lived in big old country houses, while his dad commuted to business in London. The child’s world is peopled mostly with horses and dogs and birds. With his mum and his younger brother Kit, he spends a lot of time riding through the fields and down the lanes. Later, he’ll take part in the more adult pursuits like fox hunting, then stag hunting. All this is summoned up in evocative but restrained prose that never tips into over into the poetic excess you might expect from such an eminent man of letters.

Given that it was all taking place in England, of course, the idyll could not be allowed to last undisturbed. For Andrew, that meant being sent away to boarding school when he was seven years old. If you ever want to know what makes the British so different from the rest of humanity, you need look no further than that system of the "public schools" (so-called because they’re private). That a large part of a society can think it’s right and proper to wrench little children away from their loving parents and send them off to draconian institutions where routines are brutal and kindness is doled out in minuscule portions  – you have to wonder what it does to a nation.

One major result would be the repression of genuine love and the show of fake emotions. (Ever wonder why Britain produces so many good actors? Because all Brits have been acting all their lives.) When little Andrew wrote his first letter home, it was a heartfelt cry of pain and a plea for deliverance. His teacher handed the letter back, telling him that such a missive would only make mummy sad and that he should, rather, write something that would make her happy. Andrew complied.

And so it went, year after year, the pretense of keeping up a cheerful front, the burying of any expression of genuine feelings. Same for his brother Kit when he too was thrown to the wolves. To give their mother credit, she seems to have felt the anguish just as keenly as the boys did. Their dad, of course, insisted on keeping up the hearty pretense that all was well, so there was nothing for the rest of the family to do but play along.

It’s something of a relief, then, to find that the teen-age Andrew began to question some of the routines and assumptions of his decidedly narrow-minded upbringing. He wondered whether he should attend a private school after all. (That question was smacked down with hardly a consideration by the authorities.) He made the decision not to take part in hunting any more. Given that his family was decidedly non-bookish – nearly all printed material around the house had to do with horses – it’s interesting to watch his love for poetry sprout and blossom. A couple of knee operations forced him to spend months at home in bed, during which time he loved exploring books that his English teacher recommended. At this time, he admits somewhat guiltily, he became especially close to his mother; his dad almost seemed an intruder on their artsy discussions. When major trouble descends on the family, though, Motion pre shows considerable dignity, love for his family and strength of character.

Rewarding as the book is, I have some quibbles. The early chapters about the author’s ancestors don’t do much for me: too much detail, too many names. I don’t know why writers seem to think we need this background material when all we really want from the author of a memoir is the author’s personal impressions. Another gripe is that the dialogue between Andrew and his brother doesn’t seem age appropriate to me. They always sound too mature, although I’m willing to grant that this could be because I've never been a public-school-trained British boy. A more severe critic than I might find fault with the book's narrative style. Mr. Motion isn’t like a narrator who stands in front of you and delivers the material in the manner of a public speaker. Instead, he’s more like someone musing out loud, sliding from one scenario or memory to another in such a sly way that you barely notice the segue. In the process, the concept of paragraph unity frequently gets trashed but, if a poet laureate can’t break the rules, who can?

 

Troubling Love (Novel) by Elena Ferrante, 1999 (English Translation by Ann Goldstein, 2006)

According to the cover blurb, the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym for the Italian woman who has had a great success with this novel and another one, The Days of Abandonment. I can think of only one reason why the author would want to hide her identity: so that people wouldn’t know that she has such a sick take on life. This book’s dark, obsessive fantasies make for reading that’s not only very unpleasant but nearly incomprehensible.

Not that it doesn’t start out in a relatively conventional way. The body of the narrator’s mother, wearing only a fancy bra, washes up on the seashore near some small town in Italy. Nothing untoward about that. It happens in the best of families, right? For the rest of the book’s 139 pages, however, the narrator plunges into a macabre journey haunted with nightmarish visions that may be based on memories or may be imaginary; it’s hard to tell. The mood is well-established by a detail early on. While carrying her mother’s coffin to the grave, the narrator feels a sudden and unexpected menstrual flow. "The warm liquid that was coming out of me against my will gave me the impression of an agreed-upon signal among aliens inside my body." From then on, it’s nothing but rushing through streets of Naples, buying tampons, changing them, trying to find people connected with her mother, trying to avoid them, running away from people, collapsing, vomiting and such carry-on.

The woman’s search has mainly to do with two men in her mother’s life: the mother’s husband, who painted kitschy pictures, and the agent who sold the paintings. The married couple had split long ago. It seems that the mother was having an affair with the agent, possibly before, during and after the marriage. But nothing much is clear, in terms of history. What is clear is that the narrator has a mightily conflicted attitude to her mother. She hates her mother, she feels her mother inside her, she is her mother, and so on. The other predominant motif is the narrator’s horror of men. Hardly two pages pass without reference to their violent and predatory traits – the punching, the slapping, the raping, the beating, the ogling, the stalking and the just-being-a-damned-nuisance. And yet, the narrator suspends her quest just long enough to submit in a passive and perfunctory way to a seedy sexual encounter with a man in a hotel room.

In the end, we learn about a spooky secret buried deep in the narrator’s soul. Maybe this helps to explain why she’s so tormented. But it’s no fun trekking the streets with this woman, still less living inside her mind. So I find it hard to understand how this book (and the author’s other one, if it’s anything alike) have found such an enthusiastic response. What especially puzzles me is the strong recommendation for Troubling Love from The New Yorker. However, a blurb on the cover of the book, taken from Publisher’s Weekly, notes that the novel’s translator is an editor at The New Yorker. Could it be that even that august paragon of literary journalism does not always adhere to the strictest standards of aesthetic objectivity?

 

Arctic Chill (Mystery) by Arnaldur Indridason, 2005 (English translation by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb, 2008)

In the playground near some apartment buildings, a boy is found bleeding to death from a stab wound. The cops’ search for his killer involves checking up on the local gangs, especially the ones suspected of dealing drugs. Note is taken of school rivalries and bad-tempered teachers. Potential pedophiles in the neighbourhood are also rounded up. Searches are carried out on the background of the boy’s single mother, her estranged husband and her elusive boyfriend.

Sounds like standard mystery fare. Except that it’s taking place in Reykjavik. So we get some contextual info that comes as news to readers like me. Apparently, racism can be a big issue for many Icelanders. The deceased boy’s mother was a Thai immigrant, one of many such women married to Icelanders and then, frequently, abandoned not long after arriving in their new home. Some locals resent the unwillingness of the immigrants to adopt Icelandic customs and culture; other Icelanders welcome the influx of newcomers. Author Indridason gives both sides of the argument a good hearing. He also airs the view that some people consider Iceland’s justice system too soft on criminals.

Apart from that, however, the book lacks any novelty or special appeal. The investigation of the crime is slow-moving and plodding. It doesn’t involve any very clever sleuthing, and the ultimate solution to the mystery offers no big surprise. For lack of any such thrills, the author’s apparent hope is that we will be caught up in the daily life of the chief detective, one Erlendur (no first name given, as far as I can tell), and that our fascination with him will carry us along. So we learn about lots of things that are bothering him over and above the search for the boy’s killer. There’s his relationship with his two kids, young adults who are both somewhat alienated from him. He pays visits to a former boss who is dying in hospital. He’s also mulling over the disappearance of a woman who is the most recent spouse of a thrice-married man. Incoherent calls, possibly from that woman, keep coming in on his cell phone. And then there’s some dark horror, that’s never quite explained, about the death of Erlendur’s younger brother when they were kids.

I gather than it’s all supposed to be very engrossing in a noir-ish, existential way. For a while it is. There’s something attractive about the quiet, unassuming prose. But the attempts to make Erlendur’s character engaging don't work for me. He and his problems eventually became as monotonous as the frozen landscape.

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