Four Corners of Night (Mystery) by Craig Holden, 1999
By the time this book arrived in a pile from the library, I’d forgotten
what had prompted me to order it. Reading along, it seemed like nothing special – a typical police procedural where
you get the gist by skipping two lines out of three. Max and his buddy Bank are investigating the apparent kidnaping of a
12-year-old girl in a mid-sized town somewhere in Ohio. Gradually, we learn about a similar case – the unsolved kidnaping
of Bank’s daughter some years ago. The relationship between the two cops, who have been friends since childhood, is
the best aspect of the story. Mr. Holden also creates the dialogue of the low-lifes they encounter with a chillingly inane
and monotonous authenticity. When it comes to the resolution of the various mysteries, Mr. Holden fits all the pieces together
in an intellectually satisfying way. If it seems somewhat far-fetched, how much does that matter? That’s the deal with
mysteries, n’est ce pas?, they’re not supposed to be real.
A Life of Privilege, Mostly (Memoir) by Gardner Botsford, 2003
This book caught my attention with its promise to deliver lots of juicy stuff about the author’s long career as an
editor at The New Yorker. To appreciate the importance of that for me, you have to understand that, for several decades
– until the end of the reign of William Shawn, editor supreme – The New Yorker was my bible. A favourite
pastime was to retire to bed with a stack of back issues (passed on by my piano teacher) and to pore over Pauline Kael’s
movie reviews, then the fiction, then those long, absorbing articles by John McPhee et al, not to mention the cartoons, the
theatre reviews and the "Talk of the Town. It struck me that the elegance, intelligence and perfection of that magazine constituted
something of a miracle. No matter what horrors were happening out there in the world, The New Yorker always conveyed
the message that there were cultured, decent people at the top and that, in the end, their good sense would hold the day.
Unexpectedly, though, this book begins with the author’s account of his experience in the Second World War, particularly
his role in the D-day landing in Normandy as a lieutenant in the army. His worm’s-eye-view of the proceedings strips
away the historical and analytical barnacles that have accumulated around the event and gives you the sense of one guy’s
confusion and terror in that horrible mess. He’s standing on the beach with his men. Plan A has aborted, does he go
to Plan B or should he skip to Plan D? For the first time ever in reading a war story, I began to wonder how I would fare
in such a situation. The rest of the war, although somewhat less dramatic, passes in a similar muddle for the upper-class
twit the author portrays himself as being.
When it comes to his work at the august New Yorker, Mr. Botsford delivers lots of great scoop on well-known authors,
editors and publishers. (A few of my fave’s are missing: barely a word about Pauline Kael, nary a mention of John Updike.)
He also passes along some fascinating lore about editing, which I am going to photocopy and keep handy for reference. But
mostly it is the ambiance of life in those sacrosanct halls that enthralls. Alas, it turns out that the gods and goddesses
who turned out that weekly miracle were as fraught, conflicted and downright creepy as gods usually turn out to be. The debacle
surrounding the much-anticipated conclusion of Mr. Shawn’s reign is particularly dis-spiriting. If the exposé published a few years ago by Lillian Ross, his secret "other
wife", didn’t completely shatter your illusions about him, this book might finish the job.
And yet, through all the duplicity and the conniving, I somehow see Mr. Shawn steering the steady course and assuring us
all that the deity was in his heaven and all was well with the world. His vigilance made certain that no hint of
the fracas behind the scenes soiled that magazine’s chaste pages (as long-time theatre critic Brendan Gill once referred
to them). Isn’t that the most you can ask of a god – that he stay on message to bitter end? No matter what his
peccadilloes, he’s earned his niche in my personal pantheon.
Syriana (Movie) Director and co-writer: Stephen Gahan
Come the Winter Solstice, you need something to ward off the gloom of the impending holiday season. So you turn to
a movie outside the range of your usual fare, in the hope of shaking things up a bit. It looked like this noir-ish thriller
would do the trick. In the first few minutes of the movie, we get about eight brief scenes in different spots around the world,
each identified by subtitles and each introducing a bewildering array of new characters and situations. It all has something
to do with oil in the Persian Gulf. Lots of skulduggery, feuding Arabian princes, US machinations, terrorists in training
– you know the sort of thing. After a while, my reason for staying in the theatre was to see if the many threads came
together in any coherent way. Not as far as I could tell.
But then, I’m not much of a plot guy at the best of times. So what about the characters? Sometimes, if you can sort
out the good guys and the bad guys, that tells you all you need to know about a movie. George Clooney seemed to be on the
right side – most of the time. He was apparently getting screwed by the higher-ups but I’m not sure why. Now and
then they referred to him as a Canadian but I couldn’t tell whether that was the truth or just a cover. Matter of fact,
he looked pretty confused too. Bloated and scruffy, he seemed to be wondering what happened to the scripts that used to cast
him as a sexy, funny leading man.
As for the rest of them, I’m quite certain that Chris Plummer was bad; you could tell by the sardonic twist of the
lips. Same with Chris Cooper. William Hurt? Good, I think – that drawl of his is so intimate and comforting. But why
did he have to confer with George Clooney in a movie theatre? Oh, well, I’m just glad they weren’t sitting
near me. As for Jeffrey Wright, you can't help thinking he's a decent guy, especially when you remember that sweet doofus
he played in Broken Flowers, but in the end, he turns out to be bad (I think). That’s hard on a viewer like
me who needs clear signals about these things. No problem with Matt Damon. With his strong jaw and his perky nose, he’s
so neat and spiffy as the young dad, even one burdened with personal tragedy, that you come away from the movie reassured
that someday the world will get its act together with Americans like him in charge. But on the way home, you can't recall
whether he actually saved anybody or accomplished anything other than to reinforce his status as a young screen
Maybe the actors didn’t get the plot any more than I did. After all, it doesn’t really matter to them does
it? You hire a bunch of people and let them each know what type they play in their scene. You have your white-shirt-and-tie
backroom boys at their computers, your business-suited ballsy females, your sleazy top executives, your knight in shining
armour with his trophy wife and his troubled family life, your indigenous people for local colour, your exotic locales. You
throw in lots of blood and violence, some personal heartache, secret meetings, scads of technology for weaponry and for spying
– there’s your movie. Who cares whether anybody knows what’s going on?
Rating: E (as in "Eh?" i.e. iffy)
Brokeback Mountain (Movie) directed by Ang Lee
Two hunky young strangers, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) head into the mountains of Wyoming to spend
the summer of 1963 looking after sheep. It gets pretty cold and lonely in them there hills and you know how it is with horny
young guys. Given the problems Toronto audiences had with Canstage’s recent production of a certain Edward Albee play
(see Dilettante’s Diary Nov 25/05), I guess we can be grateful that these two guys leave the livestock alone. But don’t
think for a minute that these boys are queer. They smoke and swear like Marlboro men, they walk with their legs well apart
and they can both deliver a knock-out punch. No limp wrists in this department. These lovers give each other bloody noses,
It surprised me to learn that the movie is based on a New Yorker short story by Annie Proulx. (As you know, I avoid
advance publicity so that my impressions will not be conditioned by hype.) The movie feels like a skim through the highlights
of an 800-page novel. A twenty-year span offers up big chunks of each guy’s life: love, separation, marriage, kids,
divorce, death. Tons of story. Which kept me watching – I’ll give the movie that. You want to find out what happens
to these two guys who’ve got themselves into one hell of a situation.
Never mind the fact that it’s pretty much a fantasy; lots of hetero love stories are fantasies too, aren’t
they? Not that the sex is improbable. We all know some cowboys who aren’t too choosy about who or what they copulate
with. The problem is the icky, romantic stuff that keeps the two guys bouncing back to each other across the years like
they’re attached by to each other by a bunji cord. Through it all, the two guys function pretty much as icons. We never
get any insight into them. We never come close to what they’re supposedly feeling. We’re asked to accept that
they’re two good old boys who just happen to love each other. Nobody ever says anything like "Your eyes are pools
reflecting the depths of ineffable infinity" or "The feel of your massive biceps against the flat of my palm sends tingles
up and down my spine." The fact that it’s impossible to understand much of their mumbling could be a problem except
that they don’t seem to have anything interesting to say. Come to that, they’re two rather boring hunks. Thank
goodness there’s lots of beautiful scenery to look at -- other than the two guys.
As for acting, Heath Ledger fares somewhat better as the more taciturn of the two. He seems to have some sort of prosthetic
in his lower lip (a plug of tobacco?) to take away any hint of softness and to turn his mouth into a straight, grim line.
This may account for the unintelligibility of most of his dialogue. Jake Gyllenhaal's transition to middle age comes off awkwardly. The
pot belly and the greying moustache don’t sit comfortably on him. His hissy fit near the end of the movie leaves you
wondering where to look.
Clearly, this movie is shaping up to be the big hit of the season. (Even I can’t avoid noticing all the Golden Globe
nominations). In Toronto, it’s playing on three screens in one theatre; the audience at the matinee I attended was five
times the average size. Granted, the movie is watchable, but I can’t help thinking a big part of the popular
appeal is that we middle-class, middle-brow folk are supposed to be congratulating ourselves on being able to sit through
something so "edgy" as a love story between two cowboys. But you have to wonder if the movie’s working the way
it’s supposed to. At one of the most intense moments, the audience broke into laughter. (For fear of spoiling the story,
I won’t describe the scenario on screen.) Is it just that the audience isn’t as sophisticated as it wants to think
it is? Or is it that there’s something wrong with the production? Put it this way: wouldn’t you think there
might be something amiss if an audience broke into laughter at Ophelia’s pathetic entrance in her mad scene?
One tiny aspect of the movie gave me a glimpse of what might have been. Kate Mara plays the daughter of one of the guys.
In her first scene, she’s an inexperienced teenager, with honest features and no make-up. She makes you feel that suddenly
you're looking at a real person worth paying attention to. In the final scene of the movie, she’s a young woman on the
brink of marriage, trying to be loving and hopeful in the face of the mess that her dad has made of everything. The encounter
between her and the old man hits some very poignant notes. If the whole movie had the same degree of authenticity, it might
have squeezed more than one measly, belated tear out of me.
Rating: C minus ( "C" = certainly worth seeing)
Rachel Gareau, Roberts Gallery, Toronto until Dec 23.
In case you’re wondering why I often write about shows at the Roberts Gallery, it’s because the gallery
lies directly on my beat between a couple of favourite movie theatres in downtown Toronto. The airy, elegant space of the
gallery, not to mention the beautiful art work, offers a welcome respite from the sometimes grungy ambiance of Yonge Street.
However, my first attempt to see this show misfired because I’d inadvertently hit the gallery’s Monday closing.
But I made a special trip next day because the few samples I’d seen of Rachel Gareau’s work intrigued me.
Many abstract works leave me cold. Not this work. In the first place, it’s very hot, in terms of colours. Ms. Gareau
uses lots of brilliant oranges, reds and yellows in these acrylics. Her work is also hot in terms of thrilling. Strictly
speaking, the works aren’t purely abstract, I suppose, in that they appear to have some connection to landscape, city
scape and still life. In other words, they’re not totally cerebral, having some basis in representation. And I guess
that’s what makes me love them: the artist is telling us how she feels about stuff we see every day.
In the brilliant blobs and smears of one picture, you may think you see the suggestion of the roof of a house against the
trees, possibly a couple of human figures in the foreground. Another time, you suspect you’re looking at some smudgy
semi-industrial setting. Elsewhere, you may be getting a hint of a bowl of fruit on a table. Now and then, sketchy outlines
of ships or sails or something like sea creatures emerge. Not one of the pictures looks banal or ordinary. They’re
all infused with the excitement of the artist’s response to them. And don’t let my speaking of "blobs" and "smears"
lead you to think the compositions are random or helter-skelter. In many of them, a strong sense of inter-connected geometical
shapes works to hold the picture together and give it power.
This isn’t a criticism, more of a reflection: a room full of these dazzling works is a bit over-powering. Does Ms.
Gareau ever speak in a quieter voice? Is this a phase? In any case, it’s exciting to try to imagine what her artistic
vision will produce next.
Abraham Lincoln (Biography) by Thomas Keneally, 2003
It has recently come to my attention that Abraham Lincoln may have been the most interesting person who ever lived. Or,
let’s say, the most interesting public person about whom we have lots of reliable documentation. The guy down the street
from you who lives in a cardboard shed and who collects cats may be very interesting, but it’s not likely that he’s
had much impact on human affairs. And there are people like Jesus and Socrates (if he ever existed) who probably were
mighty interesting but about whom we have little if any reliable historical evidence.
Don’t know why it took me so long to catch on to Lincoln. Possibly a subconscious lingering of childish notions: who
could care about a guy who had such a dumb name and who looked so geeky. But here are some of the things about him that are
starting to fascinate me. His knack for being pithy and witty, yet reasonable most of the time. His humility – that’s
something I have no experience of but apparently it involves being confident of your own gifts while open to learn anything
you can from others. What looks like a serious clinical depression that weighed on him much of the time. His patience towards
his cantankerous wife. The fact that he has been proven right about so many things. And yet the limitations of his wisdom:
his humane feelings didn’t extend to North America's first peoples, possibly because he saw his grandfather killed
by Indians; nor did he endorse (initially) the extension of the vote to blacks, or racial inter-marriage. His concise, trenchant
use of the English language. His skepticism towards the religious platitudes of the day. His having resorted to prostitutes
as a young man. His fondness for dirty jokes.
This little book (175 pgs), an entry in the Penguin Lives series, seemed a good place to start on the basics of Lincoln’s
life. So much is crammed into the book that the reading of it doesn’t make for much pleasure. Many of the characters
make such brief appearances that you barely get to know the major players. Lincoln himself is sketched in broad outlines rather
than fleshed-out. Still, you have to give Mr. Keneally credit for bravely taking on the challenge of conveying the essentials
of so complex a life in such a limited format. The writing picks up steam when it comes to the Civil War, which appears
to be the part of the story that Mr. Keneally was most interested in. To my surprise, I began to find myself caught up in
the conflict, skimpy thought the treatment was. Most of all, I’m grateful for the seven pages of suggested titles at
the end of the book. But you won’t be hearing about them in Dilettante’s Diary for a while, as ten other library
books are piled in the corner waiting their turn.
Open Net (Non-fiction) by George Plimpton, 1985
When George Plimpton died a couple of years ago, the obituaries mentioned the books he wrote about his stints playing
with professional sports teams. How exiting could that be, I wondered, for an east-coast intellectual to be rubbing shoulders
with these gods of our day, to be joshing with them in the locker rooms, to be accepted as one of them, even briefly?
I decided to start with this book about hockey, not just because I’m a loyal Canadian. The fact is, I have played
hockey. Or, it would be more accurate to say, I have been on the ice, in skates, while a hockey game has happened around me.
Actually, I’m quite a good skater. Trouble is, a stick in my hand confuses me. You could say that when it comes to hockey,
my mind does not work in quite the same way Wayne Gretzky’s does. They say that he can see a play shaping up before
it happens. I have trouble seeing a play before, during and after it happens. When I join a group watching hockey on tv, somebody’s
always blurting out: "Did you see that? Did you see what he did?" Invariably my answer is: No, I didn’t. Which means
that Hockey Night In Canada usually finds me tucked up with a good book.
But I quite enjoyed Mr. Plimpton’s account of the time he spent training with the Boston Bruins in 1977, with a coda
about a Gretzy encounter in 1985. The book teems with entertaining anecdotes and hockey lore. Mr. Plimpton handles his material
like the Great One handled a puck. The historical and explanatory bits are seamlessly woven into the narrative. In that sense,
it could be a model for non-fiction writing. One thing that surprised me was that the Bruins were so nice to Mr. Plimpton.
The players went out of their way to make him feel better when he screwed up in goal, as he inevitably did. Years
later, though, he found out he’d been the unsuspecting victim of a pretty good practial joke. Among the many anecdotes,
the one that impressed me most was the description of Bobby Orr’s demeanour after scoring. None of that punching the
air and victory dancing for him. He often skated away from the goal looking somewhat abashed. Seems that he was all too aware
when he scored that it was a cause of embarrassment and disappointment for others, so he didn’t want to rub it in. Could
a guy actually be that noble?
That question hints at my problem with the book. Not to say that I doubt such noblesse in Mr. Orr. I want to
believe it. But the book as a whole has a sanitized, squeaky-clean feel. There’s some indication of occasional over-indulgence
in alcohol among the players but no other hint of a dark side to the life. That’s understandable since Mr. Plimpton
undertook the project – initially as an assignment for Sports Illustrated – on the good graces of the Bruins
organization. So he’s not going to be dishing the dirt on them. But the wholesome feel of the book shows what a
distance non-fiction writing has come since 1985. We want a tell-it-like-it-is approach from our writers today.
As with his subject, Mr. Plimpton is circumspect about himself as narrator. Apart from the fact that he’s something
of a klutz in goal, almost none of his personality comes through. Is he falling back on patrician reserve? Or is it just that
the reporter was expected, in the style of those days, to keep himself out of the story as much as possible? In any case,
I think writing of this kind has become much more candid in the past twenty years. It would be fun to see what David
Sedaris would do with a subject like this. Or Bill Bryson. Or Patrick Donohue.