Dilettante's Diary

Oct 24/05

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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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Reviewed here: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Record Album) C.R.A.Z.Y. (Movie); Three Watercolour Artists (Art Exhibition); Knitting A Prayer (Radio Documentary); The Story of My Father (Biography): A History of Violence and Where The Truth Lies (Movies); The Plot Against America (Novel)

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (CBC Radio Two, I Hear Music, Oct 22)

Robert Harris, host of CBC Radio Two’s "I Hear Music" confuses me One day, he’s giving an erudite treatise on Beethoven’s Quartets, or reviewing a classical concert for the Globe and Mail; the next day he’s playing and analyzing stuff that I don’t think’s worth playing, let alone analyzing. But this past Saturday, Mr. Harris was devoting the whole program to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club band, the 38-year-old album voted by Rolling Stone magazine as the best pop album of all time. I had plans that precluded listening to the radio at this point, but I decided to re-arrange my day. It seemed a good idea to listen carefully in the hopes of getting some clue as to what all the fuss was about.

It’s not as if I’d never heard the album. During most of the 1960s I was a seminarian studying for the priesthood. A classmate asked me for help with an assignment for an English class. He was supposed to decide whether or not the lyrics in Sergeant Pepper constituted genuine poetry according to Aristotle’s philosophy of art. (I think we said they did.) I can still see us lolling in the plush chairs in the little barbershop in the basement of the seminary, pouring over the lyrics as printed – either on the back of the album or on an insert. So, chances are, we listened to them at some point. Some of them certainly became familiar to me over the years, but most of what Mr. Harris played from the album sounded completely new to me.

From which you may gather that I am not a diehard Beatles fan. Don’t get me wrong. In their heyday, I for real dug their impact on the culture.  Those clothes! The hair! The attitude – "cocking a snoot at the establishment", I think it was called. They were groovy, man, far out! (Mind you, I could never tell them apart, except for Ringo; he was the sexy one.) But their music? Well, I never could quite get it.

It was interesting to hear Mr. Harris give a little background on John and Paul, the two who wrote most of the songs. Turns out John was the one who had the hard-scrabble upbringing. His music tended to be more bluesy, whereas Paul had a relatively cushy upbringing; his compositions leaned more towards the music-hall. Guess that’s my inclination too because, of all the pieces played on the program, the only one I really like is Paul’s "When I’m Sixty-four". Oh yes, I also like "I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends" . Don’t know if that’s the title but my guess is that it’s one of Paul’s. (That phrase keeps coming back when I hear the music by Rameau that’s used as the basis for the theme on Jurgen Gothe’s DiscDrive. Anybody else have that problem or is it just my quirky ear?)

At one point, Mr. Harris was saying that the album was banned in places and that some radio stations refused to play it. That sounded kind of far-fetched to me, but then he mentioned that the album was thought to be all about the drug culture. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds": LSD! I’d forgotten all about that. Drugs were a big deal back then, weren’t they? Listening to the references to that girl with the kaleidoscopic eyes, I was thinking: yeah, there could be some LSD happening there.

Mr. Harris introduced Paul’s song about a girl sneaking away from home as the most classical-sounding of the lot. Great, I thought, this is going to be more up my alley. Harp arpeggios, that sort of thing off the top – so far so good. But then Paul comes in with his singing. And it’s so bad! Sorry, but I was raised on John McCormick. Paul’s flat, scratchy sound just doesn’t do it for me. The lyrics – about a girl eloping and leaving a note for her parents – were very touching and all, but I kept expecting a pay-off about her coming home pregnant a few months later. Guess there’s a bit of John’s sardonic side to me.

The final song, John’s "A Day In the Life", is said to be the best pop song of all time, so it got my full attention. All I could make out, even with Mr. Harris’ explanation, was that it was something about holes in the road – 4,000 was it? Blackburn – is that where it was? (Maybe you have to be stoned?)

So it would be fair to say that the program did not go very far in the direction of convincing me of the greatness of the Beatles’ music. But it did make me think. Early in the program, Mr. Harris played a bit of the demo that "the Boys" were hawking around London in the early 1960s – a lively, up-beat, somewhat inane love song. No record producer would give them the time of day. Except one guy who "kind of liked it." (I did too – No, not in the 1960s, I’m not claiming that kind of prescience; I liked it when I heard it the other day. Besides, I wasn’t a record producer in London in the 60s. I was in the seminary, remember?) Now just suppose that guy hadn’t been home the day the Beatles came knocking. Imagine what a difference that would have made to the world. As for my little world? Well, it might mean that there wouldn’t be all those bellbottoms moldering in the trunk in the basement.

 

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Movie) directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

For the first half hour, I’m thinking this is one of those marvelous grassroots Quebec movies – full of life and humour, showing real people in real situations. Where do those Quebeckers get such good actors? They manage to be so authentic and believable, not the least bit filmy. The story is about little Zac who was born on Christmas Day in the 1960s and who seems to have sexual identity issues. He likes playing dolls and he’s good with babies. This makes for difficulties in a house with four brothers and a macho dad. But it’s not all bad. Along with the meanness, there’s all the stuff of family life, including fun and even a moment or two of genuine kindness (somebody casually tossing a piece of gum to a younger brother). Not to mention aspects of life that I take to be typical of Quebec life (ironing toast???) and lots of creative swearing that the subtitles can’t do justice to. The music adds a lot too. Dad’s obsessed with Patsy Cline, so we get endless renditions of her "Crazy". Church scenes feature some gorgeous boy soprano singing; a deep, resonant Byzantine-sounding choir surfaces from time to time. Even the fantasy sequences are delightful.

But then we make an awkward leap into Zac’s teen years. He’s discovered in his room, shirtless, practising some sort of martial arts. For the longest while, I thought we were looking at one of the older brothers. (You won’t have this problem, having read this review. You’re welcome.) For me, the movie never fully recovers from this confusion. The focus becomes very diffuse. As the decades roll on, we get a marriage and a funeral, neither of them Zac’s. Is this movie about him or is it a family saga? Drug and booze problems. Umpteen Christmas eve parties. At one point, we end up nearly dying of thirst in a desert in the Middle East, only to be rescued at the last moment by a family of bedouins (it seems). This is the kind of movie where people have a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night with the sudden intuition that a loved one is in danger. Did I mention that Zac has a healing gift? If he prays for somebody, they get better. Or is it just that his devout Mom thinks it works that way?

This surfeit of material might work if the central character held it together. The trouble is that we never really understand Zac. I don’t know whether there is a hard and fast rule that you can’t have a good drama with a central character that confuses the audience, but I’m enunciating it now. (You heard it here first.) It’s ok if the character is confused, but the audience shouldn’t be. Now I know that there’s a fairly successful play (by some Limey playwright, as I recall) about some young man, a student somewhere in Scandinavia – Denmark, that’s it – who’s a bit of an enigma but, in that case, we get to hear his thoughts (tons of them); we know what’s going on inside him. When it comes to Zac, his behaviour sends out a lot of conflicting messages, so we never know what to make of him. He seems to have a hot-and-heavy sex life with a girlfriend but he also seems to be making eyes at his cousin’s boyfriend. One minute he’s beating the crap out of some thug and, a few scenes later, the two of them have apparently just had some sort of sex. All we get by way of his thoughts on the subject is the occasional voice-over prayer to the effect that he doesn’t want "to be that". Walking home, I was able to look back and say: ok, Zac was in denial about his sexuality. But his character was so opaque that I hadn’t been able to sympathize with his struggle.

Warning: this being a French movie – what follows applies to both the Canadian and the European versions – you have to put up with one hell of a lot of smoking. Many of the characters cannot spend a waking moment without a tobacco stick burning in their face – except for a few smoke-free breaths during sex. I know it’s true to French culture (especially a few decades ago) but I’m getting sick of watching it. Do we really need our noses rubbed in that much realism? Recently, I attended an Irish play and it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that there hadn’t been any smoking. Now how realistic is that? So it can be done. I think the French directors’ insistence on the smoking is a perverse flying-in-the-face of what they perceive as political correctness, flirting with death to show that they don’t give a damn. So teenage!

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

 

Three Watercolour Artists ( Ming Zhou, Mary Anne Ludlam, Neville Clarke at the Roberts Gallery, Toronto, until October 22)

What is it with Ming Zhou? His watercolours have a way of wrecking my day. Take that show of his at the Roberts Gallery a couple of years ago. After taking a good long look at his work, I was so weak in the knees that I could barely drag myself to the subway. And here I was the other day, planning a short visit to this show, then some other shows, followed by a movie. By the time I’d perused Ming Zhou’s pictures on the main floor, it was all I could do to haul myself upstairs where most of the pictures by the other two artists are hanging. I was shot for the rest of the day.

Admittedly, other people might look at Ming Zhou's work without feeling so overwhelmed. What sends me about his paintings is the essential watercolour-ness of them. I don’t think you could do what he does in any other medium. He works usually wet-in-wet, which means that he applies a wet brush to paper that’s already wet. The paint therefore has a tendency to swirl all over the place, leaving very little room for control or correction by the artist. What you see in the work is the way the way the pigment and the water mix on the page – and that’s what I find most exciting about watercolour.

In this show, we have many of the Ming Zhou’s in the style that we’ve come to know and love: the light, ethereal, moody pieces, mostly still lives and interiors. (I have one of them on my living room wall.) The feeling these watercolours give me is that other artists are trying to show you how much they can do; Ming Zhou shows how little he need do to create a masterpiece: just a delicate vase against a dark wall with some light coming in a window, say, or a bowl of fruit glowing on a white cloth, against a dark background. They’re all about mood, atmosphere, the fleetingness of being. In some of them, he has applied a bit of salt (apparently) to add a little extra sparkle. (It dissolves in the water, leaving snowflake-like white spots scattered over the picture.) In this show, though, there are still still lives with brighter colours and harder edges which I found delightful, perhaps for their more assertive quality, which comes as something of a surprise. There are also several of Ming Zhou’s stunning nudes in watercolour wash.

Most interesting, for me, are his landscapes, apparently of China. They’re mostly done on yuppo (I gather), a kind of paper with a plastic coating that makes your watercolour slip and slide all over the place, meaning that you have even less control than usual. We get marvelous conglomerations of rooftops, walls, canals, bridges. One of the most striking pieces is a large view of a canal crowded with buildings along its edges and a bridge in the distance. The astounding thing about it is that, up close, say about three or four feet away, it’s just a jumble of muddy, blurry colours, almost an abstract, with the barest suggestion of a landscape. But step across the room, look back, and suddenly you see the whole picture come into focus – photographic realism almost. How does a painter do that? Another of my favourites is a very simple picture of the prow of a boat, seen through an opening between the walls on either side of a canal. The composition is mostly dark browns and dirty greys, but with some wonderful light coming from somewhere. A moment of stillness that captures the heartbeat of life in the way Vermeer did. Pictures like this leave you gaping and wondering how it’s possible to convey so much of life so simply. That's why it's so tiring trying to take in all of them.

But I did make it around to see the works by Mary Anne Ludlam and Neville Clarke – two watercolourists of a very different type from Ming Zhou, almost his opposites you might say. Ms. Ludlam’s stylized landscapes, usually the long view, are intricately designed, with nearly all hard edges, which gives them almost a stained-glass effect. You don’t look to her for realism or naturalism; her trees are like gourds or spears, as the case may be. What you get from her paintings is the transparency of pure watercolour, conveying the peace and the harmony of nature, rendered mostly in very soft greens, with a tiny bit of stronger colour on some building shimmering in the distance like a jewel. My favourite painting of hers is a winter scene of a creek in the woods, with, in the ice, dazzling reflections of the trees. Mr. Clarke’s portraits, all featuring a young Asian woman, show a formidable virtuosity of watercolour technique, in the realistic mode, with an infinitely subtle play of colour and light. The one that appeals to me most, though, is a black and white ink wash of the young woman standing under a skylight: a very dramatic composition that has its strong impact simply through the bold arrangement of light, darkness and shape.

 

Knitting A Prayer (Radio Documentary) Tapestry, CBC Radio One, Oct. 16/05

Ok, everybody’s grateful that CBC radio’s back on track. The repetition of those old musical chestnuts on Radio Two was beginning to feel like water torture. The award for the best comment on all that goes to Shelley Solmes and her colleagues on Here’s To You. At the beginning of the first program after the break, instead of the usual theme, they opened with Ravel’s "Bolero". I was thinking: "Oh, God! No! How can they do this to us?" But then the music was interrupted by some strange bomb-like noise and Shelley came on and said, "There, now we’ve exploded Ravel’s ‘Bolero’." Good laugh all round. Next day, she said they’d received quite a few grateful emails from listeners, so I guess lots of people were thinking like I was.

But the award for the best item in the blessed first week back goes to Tapestry on Radio One for the documentary Knitting A Prayer. Host Mary Hynes explained that the short piece by Alisa Siegel had won an award during the summer, so they were re-broadcasting it by way of celebration. I’m so glad I caught it. Tapestry is a program that I listen to with mixed feelings often but this piece bowled me over. In fact, I’m still so choked up that it’s kinda hard to talk about it, but here goes...

For the full ten or fifteen minutes of the item, Shirley Sinclair, a soft-spoken older woman talked quietly about a little act of kindness that she performs. Some time ago, the chaplain of Mount Sinai Hospital (where Shirley delivers communion to Catholic patients) asked if Shirley knew of anyone who could help with a knitting project. As a dedicated knitter from the age of eight, Shirley offered her services. The task? To knit little white blankets and tiny bonnets for babies who were stillborn in the hospital or who died soon after birth. The bereaved parents have the opportunity to hold their tiny babies in these white woolens before they are buried or cremated. Some parents keep the blankets.

This piece certainly deserved an award. Kind of restores your faith in awards-granting juries, in fact. The key to the beauty and eloquence of the item is its simplicity. There’s no introduction or explanation, no background music or sound effects, just the voice of Shirley Sinclair, occasionally breaking into a ragged bit of a beloved hymn. The editing must have been very skillful because nobody could talk that way without interruption, with such a relaxed, steady pace. But you never notice any intrusion whatever on Shirley’s telling of the story. She explains how she thinks of the knitting as a kind of prayer. How she feels for the parents. She recently lost her husband after fifty happy years, she never lost a baby of her own and she marvels at her own good luck in contrast to the misfortune of those parents "who never got to take their babies home". She’s struck by the mystery of it all but she never questions the will of the God she believes in. I probably didn’t agree with a single thing that she said about God or Heaven – at least, not in a theological or doctrinal way – but I couldn’t help thinking: man, if religion can produce a person as kind and sympathetic as this, it can’t be all bad.

 

The Story of My Father (Biography) by Sue Miller, 2003

Sometimes it’s impossible to get an author’s latest book at the library but the review of it will mention an earlier one that’s more likely available – such as this one. Sue Miller’s best known for her first novel The Good Mother but I hadn’t read anything of hers until now. In this book, she tells about her father’s decline as a result of Alzheimer’s and his eventual death. The book is of interest to anybody who’s curious about the disease as well as to those who might have to deal with someone in that condition. As her mother had died suddenly several years earlier, Ms. Miller found herself as the family member responsible for her dad in his final months. While reading along, you wonder how you would cope with the various challenges that confronted her.

For me, the best thing about the book is the description of Ms. Miller’s family, in particular the reflection on her parents’ marriage. Her father was a serious, dedicated scholar and a Christian minister, self-effacing and shy. Her mother, on the other hand, was flamboyant, out-going, moody, temperamental and self-centred. What a fascinating study they make as a pair. In the end, Ms. Miller concludes that her father was that rare individual, almost saintly, who virtually had no sense of himself as a subject worth thinking about. Uninterested in his personal history, he was totally wrapped up in his scholarship. Steady and reliable, he was always very affectionate with his children, if a bit preoccupied. Near the end, though, his imperturbable patience was stripped away, revealing bitterness and a violent streak. Makes you wonder: was that darkness always there, covered up by learned decorum, or did the disease produce it out of nothing by messing with his brain?

Ms. Miller’s prose is, for the most part, competent and clear, if not especially marked in the charm department. In the last chapter, though, she indulges in a long explanation of how the book came to be and how she struggled over many years to find the focus for it. For me, this comes too close to touchy-feely psycho-babble. The story stands alone, without this behind-the-scenes tour. And the writing in this last bit becomes dense and clotted: "For it is by writing, by the simultaneously pleasurable and painful processes of working my way through the material I collected and made over the years I labored on this memoir, that I’ve come to see that his consolation would always have lain beyond the reach of any story I could have made of his life. But is by the making of the story, and by everything that changed in my understanding of him and of myself as I made it, that I have been, as the writer that I am, also consoled." Who cares?

 

A History Of Violence (Movie) directed by David Cronenberg

For the sake of Canadian culture, a person should be willing to put up with some contrived effects in a movie by one of our most distinguished directors, right? I mean, we’re not talking real life or normal people here, we’re talking the brilliance of film-making. Take the opening scene of this movie. Two scumbag murderers are leaving their room at a sleazy motel. On the way out, one of them stops to straighten the lawn chair by the door. You know at once that you’re in the hands of a subtle genius of a film-maker.

So, you should not get too antsy about the crap that comes at you from the screen. Like the aw-shucks dough-boy of a sheriff who chases bad guys out of town with a scary line like "We have good people in this town and we take care of them." Or the fact that, when a little girl wakes up from a bad dream, the entire household runs to comfort her. (Don’t ask me why the two little girls in this movie both look like midget hookers. That’s none of my business – or yours!) Or the woman who takes her husband home one night, having got rid of the kids, and announces with great gusto that she’s gonna play high-school sex with him. (What, they’ve never done anything but the missionary position all these years?) The bit that really had me struggling not to bail out was the sturm und drang consequent on the baseball game in phys-ed class. Now, I may not be the world’s expert on sportsmanship, but it seems to me that if somebody catches your fly ball in a game, that’s hardly grounds for a vendetta so vicious that it will put one of you in hospital – unless, of course, you're trying to drum up some fake conflict in your movie.

But don’t give up. There could just be a good story here. You have this nice small town guy – very nice, in fact – a model husband and dad, a genial restaurateur, who might just happen to have a violent past as a mobster. Kind of Graham-Greene-meets-Ian-MacEwan-as-brought-to-you-by-Alfred-Hitchcock sort of thing. What we get, though, feels more like Monty Python. As the truth about Dad’s unsavoury past begins to leak out, the teenage son lobs what’s supposed to be a vicious taunt at Dad, along the lines of: are you going to punish me if I rip off the corner store and don’t give you a cut? When the corpses are piling up on the front lawn, Mr. Dough-Boy Sheriff notes, in his kindly way, that "It just doesn’t add up." In a scene where it looks like Dad’s violent past might cost Mom her life, a choking confrontation on the stairwell turns into lusty sex, with the result that we’re treated to the unforgettable sight of Viggo Mortensen’s bare buttocks undulating on the stairs. Shades of Mr. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch with all those pulsating, fleshy protuberances.

Hilarious as all this is, the thing I can’t understand (but then I’m no expert on arty movies) is why the family members start getting kinda huffy with Dad. I kept wanting to ask them: what’s wrong with you people? You’ve got this really neat dad, he may have done some bad stuff in his day, but he loves you all and he happens to be very handy at getting rid of bad guys. Did I say handy? This guy is the Baryshnikov of executioners. With great panache, he dispatches no-good-niks (about ten, I think, in the course of the movie) without ever getting more than a few scratches or cuts on himself, along with the splashed blood and brains. (Why those minor inconveniences always earn him a private hospital room, I don’t know. Guess health care works differently if you’re Viggo M.) Who could have a better papa protector? Count your blessings, folks. At the very least, you should know it’s not too great an idea to show attitude to a dad like yours.

But don’t let me put you off this movie. You’ve got to catch the penultimate scene with William Hurt playing a head-honcho-mobster-type as the role has never been played before. Mr. Hurt – bald, paunchy but with the perfect posture – made me think of John Gielgud, the British intonation replaced by an American method-acting mumble. Watch Mr. Hurt clasp his intended victim to his bosom, nuzzle noses with him and kiss him all over. (Marlon Brando wishes he could have had some ideas for Dom Corleone.) At one point in his long bravura scene, Mr. Hurt breaks into laughter, which is rather convenient, because it means you won’t have to try so hard to hide your own. Truly a scene to die for.

As for the film itself, to quote our friend the sheriff, "it just doesn’t add up." In spite of all the killings, you never see any yellow police tape at the scene of the mayhem, never any follow-up investigation; everything is wiped clean and we move on to more drama. We never really find out what the big deal was with Viggo M., Ed Harris and William Hurt. Some nasty business with barbed wire? It’s all passed off with a lot of cliched gangter-sounding guff about "the boys". As for the family, nobody ever sits down to talk about what’s happening. They just strike dramatic poses, when they’re not screwing on the stairs. But, truly, none of that matters when you’re dealing with a movie that’s nothing less than a marvel, full of unforgettable scenes, truly a landmark in the saga of Canadian film-making.

Rating: E (as in "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

Where The Truth Lies (Movie) directed by Atom Egoyan

And so to the latest masterpiece by another of Canada’s most distinguished directors.

Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon play a pair of 1950s tv comedians like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Mr. Firth plays the suave and charming one (except that he has a violent streak that isn't very charming); Mr. Bacon plays the funny one (except that he isn’t funny). The movie wallows in the old showbiz cliche about the stars who are swamped by adoring fans; screaming crowds follow their every step. Can anybody believe that people were that addle-brained in the 1950s? Maybe about Elvis, sure. But a couple of tv comics? If we really were that stupid, I don’t want to be reminded of it. The fact is, there is nothing likeable about this pair, let alone anything to scream about.

Apparently we’re supposed to care about the fact that a naked woman – presumably murdered – is found in the bathtub of their hotel room one infamous night. Fifteen years later, in 1972, a feisty young reporter is trying to find out what actually happened. (If you don’t guess long before the big discovery scene, your mind must be a lot cleaner than mine.) The first part of the movie is about fifty percent voice-over narrative. If I want a story read to me, I’ll get one of those talking books from the library and it'll cost me a lot less than the movie admission. Chapters of somebody’s unpublished autobiography keep cropping up, although where they’re coming from is anybody’s guess. One young woman in Los Angeles reads one of these chapters over the phone to her friend in New York. Not sure I’ve got the geography right, but the long distance charges in the 1970s would pretty well bankrupt the movie, I’d think.

This movie resembles nothing so much as one of those Second City parodies of a murder mystery. There are drugs and mobsters. So many naked blonde females that it’s hard to tell them apart after a while. (One silicone breast looks a lot like another.) Actually, too many blonde females all together, especially when one tends to melt into the other and you can’t tell if she’s who she says she is or not. Young enterprising female reporters pop up all over the place, always with a reel-to-reel tape recorder in tow, to catch anything incriminating that might be going on. Our main sleuth is always having psychic flashes that tip her off to the explanations of the mysteries. A sighting of lobster served on a plane automatically brings to mind the sight of a naked female body packed in a crate of lobsters – that sort of thing. Nancy Drew could learn lots from the retentive powers of this gal. Was the billfold on top of the robe on the bed or under the robe? Don’t worry, she’ll remember, even though she heard it mentioned just once.

One exchange specifically reminded me of a favourite Second City skit years ago. As I remember it, the skit was a take-off on a film noir where the hard-nosed guy tells the dame, "Time’s just nature’s way of makin sure everythin don’t happen at once." In this movie, the reporter asks one of the comics, "What’s it like to have people want to sleep with you just because of who you are?" He asks (reasonably): "As opposed to what?" And she responds, "To your real self." I  think even Jean Paul Sartre would have trouble untangling the existential complexities of that one.

And let’s not forget the music. Talk about a sweeping, epic orchestration! There’s more drama in this score than you need for ten films. Claude Debussy should have had such a script to work with. He might have actually made something of La Mer.

Rating: E (as in "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

The Plot Against America (Novel) by Philip Roth, 2004

This business of not looking at the blurbs  – including the jacket copy – before reading a book can make for some weird experiences. In this one, I’m reading along and it seems like maybe this is autobiography. We have Mr. and Mrs. Roth and their two kids, Sandy and Philip, living in Newark. It’s the 1930s. Everything sounds very factual. I’m flipping back to the catalogue listing in the front of the book to see whether it’s listed as fiction or biography. (The tag "A Novel" appears in such small print on the cover, that I’ve missed it.) Then we get Charles Lindbergh running on the Republican ticket for President of the US. Strange, I’m thinking, I don’t remember that. But, then, I’m not exactly an expert on US history. By the time Lindbergh wins the election, thwarting FDR’s third try for the presidency, I’m beginning to catch on: this is one of those "what if" books. Now I start to remember hearing something to the effect that the book is Mr. Roth’s depiction of what it might have been like if anti-semitism had taken hold under a fascist administration in America.

This book had come to me by way of the library’s "Fast Read" program. There was some question whether I’d be able to get through the 350 pages in the allotted seven days. Turns out, I raced through the book in four sittings. That should tell you something. There’s so much a person could say about the merits of this fabulous book, but I’ll focus on two things: the political ambiance and the  family at its centre.

As it begins to become apparent that the Jews are in for a tough time under President Lindbergh, I began to fear that the book would become too polemical, that it would take on that creepy, unreal quality of an overtly political novel like 1984. But that never happens here. The ominous developments seem all too real, all too possible. It’s astounding how well Mr. Roth sketches the gradual spread of the poisonous thinking propounded by the powers-that-be. With great fanfare, an "Office of American Absorption" launches a plan to "integrate" Jews into "mainstream" America. Clearly, it’s a plan to eradicate the Jewish identity. What’s most amazing is the way Mr. Roth shows that many Jews themselves are seduced into thinking that the program is a worthy initiative, aimed at freeing them from their ghetto mentality. Such is the power of the manipulation of public opinion. When Mr. Roth shows members of the same Jewish family arguing vehemently both for and against the plan, the writing is subtle and sophisticated. If it wasn’t for the wisdom of hindsight, if you were there in that kitchen in the 1930s, listening to the arguments, you might be swayed either way.

The main way that Mr. Roth makes the crisis believable and realistic, I think, is that it's pictured mostly through the life of that Roth family, and particularly through the eyes of the youngest son, Philip, who is about nine years old when it’s happening. It’s all told in Mr. Roth’s inimitable, very personal tone of voice – that’s what makes it a very convincing story about human beings, rather than a political tract. And that family! When has the family dynamic – the love, the tension, the fear, the humour, the regret – been captured so richly in fiction? Well, in the works of lots of other Jewish writers, maybe. Does it surprise us that Jewish writers do family well? Hardly. But it did surprise me that Mr. Roth – whom I think of as a very adult writer – could turn out such a tender, loving look at the family as seen through the eyes of an impressionable boy. And, let me tell you, getting to know that family from inside made me sincerely repent of any hostile thoughts towards any ethnic or cultural group that ever crossed my mind.

The book is so good that, as I sped along, I kept asking: can any book maintain this excellence right to the end? Well, not this book, it turns out, not quite. Near the very end of the book, in his attempt to explain what has been going on, Mr. Roth comes up with some complicated, plotty stuff that’s far-fetched, to put it mildly. It feels like we’ve wandered into Dan Brown territory (as in The Da Vinci Code). Not that it’s a particularly bad denouement, just that it’s not nearly as good as the rest of the book. You feel that this kind of material is not what Mr. Roth does best. Significantly, in these passages he has set aside the story of the family and has abandoned the young boy’s point of view. We return to the family in the final chapter but, for me, the spell had been broken.

Mr. Roth's bold use of historical personages in this fiction works splendidly. But is it fair? Not sure. To his credit though, he includes a lengthy historical note at the end of the book to set the record straight. The facts, if not as dramatic as the events in the novel, are bad enough. You can see that Mr. Roth had good reason to interpolate the events he did into the lives of people like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Maybe lots of us may have a latent villian skulking inside who could unleash some pretty monstrous effects on the world, given the opportunity.

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