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June 4/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: You Don't Mess With the Zohan (Movie); Ben in the World (Novel); La Traviata (Opera); Bryn Terfel: Sunday Afternoon in Concert (Radio); The Flight of the Red Balloon (Movie); The Savage Detectives (Novel); Idomeneo (Opera); In Tune (Radio); Coleman Barks and Andrew Harvey: Rumi (Radio); The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Novel); Fell of Dark (Mystery)

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (Movie) written by Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow; directed by Dennis Dugan; starring: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chirqui, Ido Mosseri, Rob Schneider, Lainie Kazan, Daoud Heidami, Sayed Badreya, Nick Swardson

From the ads or the previews, you might think this was some goofball action comedy that could be dismissed in a couple of lines. Not quite.

First there’s that terrific premise. Adam Sandler plays Zohan, an Israeli anti-terrorist fighter supreme. He’s some sort of a macho superman, on top of which, he doesn’t feel any pain. But what he really wants in his heart of hearts is to quit all the fighting and go to New York to become a hairdresser. Now who but Adam Sandler could pull off such an implausible shtick? He’s an expert at incarnating that strange individual whose inner self plays off against his image. I’m not sure whether Mr. Sandler, with his lousy Israeli accent, could be credited with any great acting but there’s something about him that makes you want to go with his act. Maybe, it’s that lost puppy dog look underneath the arrogant demeanour. Plus, you can’t help being intrigued by a guy who’s convinced that he’s totally cool, even if he comes off as pretty much of a klutz some of the time.

In New York, Zohan gets mixed up in North American ramifications of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, with the result that the comedy takes on a decidedly political edge. I’m not sure what to make of that. Is it simply a case of making light of something that’s very serious for many people? I was reminded of the movie It’s a Beautiful Life, which some people despised because, according to them, the movie tried to gloss over the horror of the Holocaust. It was because of such comments that I didn’t want to see that movie.

Maybe what makes Zohan more palatable is that lots of the political stuff is genuinely amusing. Zohan’s mother offers the opinion that, since the conflict in the Middle East has been going on for 2000 years, "it can’t last much longer." In New York, Zohan balks at working in a beauty parlour owned by Palestinians because, he says, "I’ve already done enough to hurt my parents." Would-be Palestinian terrorists are seen sitting around a speaker phone, listening to recorded messages from the Hezbollah Customer Service Line. But the satire on ethnic stereotypes goes both ways: for Jewish merchants in an electronics store, trying to gouge customers seems to come as naturally as breathing.

Ultimately, though, the overall tone of the political message is pretty soft. We get schmaltzy, simplistic stuff about peace and brotherhood. Even in that context, though, there are some neat bits. A street confrontation between angry groups of men from both sides turns into a mutual appreciation of the sexual allure of various women prominent in US politics. Then comes this exchange:

Palestinian: They hate us

Israeli: They hate us too.

Palestinian: Why?

Israeli: We look like you.

The plot lags at times, which will disappoint viewers hoping for non-stop slapstick. But, for me, the great gallery of characters makes this movie better than the typical action comedy. When the bungling terrorists go into a pharmacy to order the necessary bomb-making chemicals, the doddery pharmacist is right out of Norman Rockwell. A son who has problems with his mom’s sex life keeps us guessing as to what’s up with him. Mariah Carey who is a pop singer in real life, I gather, delivers a note-perfect cameo of an airhead pop singer. Red-neck, right-wing hooligans get sent up properly. One of my favourite characters, an ingenuous Palestinian with a big grin (Daoud Heidami), is sent into Zohan’s beauty parlour on a spying mission. The spy comes out glowing with satisfaction because Zohan said his thick curls suit his full face.

In the more substantial roles, Emmanuelle Chirqui, as the love interest, and Ido Mosseri, as Zohan’s pal, both have great screen appeal. John Turturro serves up a deliciously repulsive Palestinian villain and Lainie Kazan gives us a middle-aged Jewish woman who is warm, sexy and believable.

Gathering from the previews shown with this feature, it appears that all action movies now, including this one, routinely include digital special effects that have heroes leaping tall buildings and hoisting cars. But one thing about this movie that seemed to be treated as routine gave me some concern: the blatant and constant sexuality. It turns out of course, that the long line of mature women waiting for Zoltan’s services doesn’t have much to do with his skill at hair styling. His comportment is lewd to put it bluntly and he’s constantly drawing his attention to his groin and to stirrings in that area. Mind you, there’s a kind of gleeful abandon to his sensuality, which could be taken for innocence. Still, it’s all very in-your-face.

When did such explicit sexual joking become standard in main stream movies? I’m thinking one early precedent may have been that orgasm-in-the-restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989). Jumping ahead nearly a decade, we got the hair gel scene in There’s Something About Mary (1998) Since then, it seems anything goes. It’s not that I’m against sex. In fact, I’m happy for all those ageing actresses in Zohan who get a chance to show how horny they can still be.  

But the movie is aimed, to a large extent, at a very young audience. At the showing that I attended, the mean age of the viewers must have been fourteen, at most. A group of boys at least a year or so younger were sitting down the row from me and they were laughing their heads off. Aren’t they a bit young to be exposed to so much rampant sexuality? Given their relative inexperience, are they able to distinguish between what’s ridiculous fantasy and what’s relatively normal behaviour in the sexual sphere?

From some of my Buddhist reading, I gather that explicit sexuality is not considered taboo in children’s entertainment in Japan. Maybe that goes down well in some cultures. But it doesn’t sit so well with me. Call me an old fogey, but I like to think young people should be introduced a little more gradually to sex shenanigans. Or is it just that I want to feel that there are certain naughty pleasures reserved for us oldsters?

Rating: B minus (Where B = "Better than most")

 

Ben In the World (Novel) by Doris Lessing, 2000

In this short book – a sequel to The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing continues the story of unfortunate Ben, a hairy male who is often described as looking like a yeti. He seems to be something of an evolutionary throwback. His intelligence is limited, but he can carry on simple conversations, can follow instructions and can get through the day, provided there aren’t too many complications.

With her inimitable tone of voice, noble-prize-winner Ms Lessing commands your attention. As always in her company, you feel that you’re listening to a wise old woman who has important things to tell you. In the hands of another writer, the story of Ben might be mawkish, sentimental or freaky. Not so with Ms. Lessing. She never shows anything but the greatest respect for Ben. You also feel her deep compassion for the man. It comes as a painful shock to discover how people inevitably cheat and abuse him. There’s a kind of heroism in his acceptance that this is the way things are, in his simply moving on to his next challenge. Not that Ms. Lessing sees all humanity as despicable towards a person like Ben. Moments of genuine kindness, even a sort of love, lighten the picture.

But the book doesn’t quite succeed as a novel. For one thing, we're not dealing with a consistent cast of characters who work through a given set of problems. Ben is the only constant but he could hardly be called a protagonist because he has so little control over what happens to him. Nor do we get to know him as well as we would the hero of a typical novel because Ben’s mind, after all, is not entirely transparent to himself, let alone to us. On the other hand, Ms. Lessing probably makes Ben's interior world as accessible as it can be.  

Given its limitations as a novel, it's a bit difficult to see the point of the book. Is it a plea for more humane treatment of developmentally challenged people? To reduce Ms. Lessing’s work to that kind of polemic would be to diminish it. In any case, Ben is so exceptional that he can hardly be made to stand as a representative of handicapped people generally.

At one point, the book veers towards  "evil scientists" literature in which are featured medical villains with malevolent intentions towards their subjects, human and animal. Even though the prose here is measured and factual, it feels like a personal diatribe on the part of the writer. In an author’s note, Ms. Lessing says she has heard of a place where the kind of thing she describes still goes on. Fair enough, but the material, as given here, seems out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Despite these flaws, the haunting effect of Ben's story attests to the power of Mr. Lessing's writing.

 

La Traviata (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; starring Rene Fleming, Matthew Polenzani, Thomas Hampson; Lyric Opera of Chicago

The great thing about masterpieces is that, no matter how often you encounter them, you keep discovering something new – which is why CBC Radio Two should stick with classical repertoire instead of inundating us with shlock as planned for this fall.

A few things that struck me – other than the overall magnificence of the work – about this performance of Traviata:

- During the intermission discussion, the stars spoke about the piece as an affair between an older woman and a younger man. That interpretation may be well-known but it had never occurred to me. The more you think about it, the more sense it makes. The young guy is so impetuous, so infatuated, that he doesn’t care about the woman’s reputation. She’s experienced enough to twist this kid around her finger but then finds herself desperately in love with him. And the father’s opposition is all the more understandable if the situation is perceived simply as a a young man’s fling.

- Matthew Polenzani said, in the discussions, that he concentrates less on making the "beautiful sound" in his singing, than on conveying the meaning of the words. This was astoundingly apparent in his singing. Even without much Italian vocabulary, you felt you were getting the sense of almost every line. Made you want to run for your Italian-English dictionary. By contrast, when Ms. Fleming sang, the actual words hardly made any impression. (Mind you, the soprano’s more rounded, lusher voice quality makes it harder for a listener to distinguish words.)

- In the big Act One tour de force, at the end of "Ah, forse lui" during which she has been dreaming of idyllic love with Alfredo, Ms. Fleming inserted a laugh  before launching into the wildly defiant "Sempre Libera". Again, this may be something that sopranos playing Violetta often do but I’d never heard it before. The perfect touch.

 

Bryn Terfel: Sunday Afternoon in Concert (Song Recital, from the Chan Centre, Vancouver) CBC Radio Two, Sunday, June 8.

Usually, classical performers begin their concerts with the more sublime material and work their way down to the lighter fare. Mr. Terfel, however, opened this recital with a collection of English songs, mostly based on the poetry of John Masefield, with music by composers such as John Ireland, Peter Warlock, Frederick Keel, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter. These took up the first half of the program. Only after the intermission did we get a concert aria by Mozart, then some Schubert lieder and songs by Faur. The program ended with folk songs from Celtic cultures. All this material was dished out with great gusto and artistry. One particularly enjoyable touch came in "Danny Boy" with Mr. Terfel’s muttered "I luv ‘ya so," at the end of the first verse. He sounded like a old guy blurting out the words in a hurry, lest he choke up.

For the most part, though, this concert from the Chan Centre in Vancouver was decidedly under-whelming. Granted, those fussy English songs are important for teaching students the art of singing. A program consisting mostly of such ditties may have been suitable for presentation by the Vancouver Recital Society but possibly not for the repeat performance at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall. I doubt that you’d feel you got your money’s worth after paying big bucks for your tickets, struggling with the dinner-hour traffic on the way to the hall and finding parking. The main satisfaction might be: "At least my grandchilden can tell their grandchildren that I heard the great Bryn Terfel sing in person." Too bad a lot of the stuff he sang wasn’t so great.

By far, the most interesting part of the radio broadcast was host Bill Richardson’s intermission interview with the singer. There’s such charm in the Welsh lilt of Mr. Terfel’s speaking voice that listening to him is spell-binding. One might better have spent the first half of the hour that way, never mind those fey English songs.

 

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Movie) written by Hsiao-hsien Hou and Franois Margolin; directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou; starring Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Hippolyte Giradot, Louise Margolin

For some reason, we’ve been getting lots of movies set in Paris lately. If there’s a prize for the one that pictures life in that city most realistically, this one gets my vote. You don’t much of the glamorous vistas here, nor do you get the scuzzy underside. Just ordinary life, as lived by ordinary people: the Mtro trains coming and going from the stations, the narrow streets crowded with cars, people picking up their kids at school, the cafs, the crumbling masonry, the elaborate doors with their buzzers, and most of all, the cooking and eating in the crowded apartments with the long windows. One aspect of this movie unlike any other on contemporary France: there are only three scenes in which somebody smokes and the first lighting up doesn’t come until about half an hour in. And something that sets the movie apart from any movie about any kid in the Western world: you have a kid here who apparently never watches tv.

But what of plot or story? Well, you have little Simon (Simon Iteanu) and his new nanny (Fang Song). Simon’s mom (Juliette Binoche) apparently makes her living as a puppeteer and a teacher of puppetry. She’s always on the run from one crisis to another, never sitting for a meal, just grabbing a quick pastry to munch in passing. It’s to Ms. Binoche’s credit that we don’t get much of her lustrous beauty here. Instead, we get a harried blonde with dark roots showing. In other words, a real person, rather than a movie star. In Breaking and Entering, her version of an impoverished immigrant didn’t convince me but here she’s totally believable.

From time to time, you get a sense that this woman has some heavy problems nagging at her. Eventually, you get some hint as to what they might be, but you never get the drama you’re expecting. And what about that nanny? Her placidity begins to haunt you after a while; you find yourself thinking: doesn’t she have any issues? Apparently not. If you tried to pitch this movie to Hollywood moguls, they'd be chomping on their cigars and demanding: so you’ve got this busy broad but what’s it about, already?

Life, that’s what. When one of the best scenes in the movie deals with the step-by-step moving of a piano from one apartment to another in real time, you know you’re not dealing with a blockbuster. Something about the naturalness of the scene makes you go: yeah, that’s exactly the way it happens. You find yourself re-living your own piano-moving-type experiences. There’s a peculiar charm about the dialogue between Ms. Binoche and the piano movers, which sounds improvised, to a large extent. As do some of her exchanges with her son. You get a genuine sense that the love between them provides the one point of certainty in her life.

Still, I couldn’t help sympathizing with the audience members who were walking out about half an hour before the end of the nearly two-hour piece. Not everybody has the patience to sit through the slow-moving, artsy musings of an auteur such as Hsiao-hsien Hou. Which brings us to that red balloon hovering over the proceedings. Eventually I was able find some sort of meaning for it as a symbol. For most of the movie, though, its apparent lack of connection with anything made it pretty irritating. But not nearly as irritating as the excerpts from the puppet shows. It was mainly Ms. Binoche’s screechy vocalization of the puppet characters that got on my nerves. But I suppose a real connoisseur of auteur films would rave about things like puppets and balloons.

Rating: C (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Savage Detectives (Novel) by Roberto Bolao 1998 (translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2007)

This is one of the very few books that I would consider buying, rather than just borrowing it from the library. In the first place, it takes more than one loan and a couple of loan-extensions to get through the book. More significantly, though, once you’ve read it and more or less figured out what’s going on, you want to go back again and again to savour this masterpiece by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolao.

The first section, set in Mexico in 1976, purports to be the journal of one Juan Garca Madero, a seventeen-year-old who is supposed to be attending law school but who skips classes and gets involved with a bunch of poets who call themselves the Visceral Realists. Now, whether or not such a group ever existed, I don’t know. My suspicion is that the very concept of the group is a big joke. In fact, the whole book appears to be – to a large extent – a huge satire on literary pretensions. But it’s hard to tell what is supposed to be real and what isn’t; occasionally, familiar writers’ names crop up: Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, etc; but then come long lists of names that most readers, at least in English-speaking North America, couldn’t possibly know – even if they are real.

Never mind. If there’s one thing at which author Bolao excels, it’s narrative voice. His young Juan Garca Madero catches your attention from the get-go. Granted, his sexual initiation makes for considerable interest, but his ingenuous personality is the main thing. He sounds so exactly like a seventeen-year-old. He tells us that one ordeal he experienced was "too long and nerve-racking to describe in detail (plus I hate details)." At one point, he says, the eyes of two strangers were watching him, "like the eyes of wolves in a gale" but then he admits, in parenthesis: "poetic licence: I’ve never seen a wolf; I have seen gales, though, and they didn’t really go with the mantle of smoke that enveloped the two strangers".

After about a hundred pages, our adventure with the engaging young Juan breaks off as he is racing away in a car with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the two leaders of the Visceral Realists, along with a prostitute whom they are trying to save from her pimp. What follows for the next four hundred pages it’s difficult, at first, to say. You get a series of statements, each headed with the date it was taken and the location, much like witness statements in a police dossier. All the statements are narrated in the first person by a variety of speakers, as taken down in dictation; some speakers recur frequently, others don’t. The dates on which the statements are taken swing, not in chronological order, between 1976 and 1996; the locations where the statements are taken range from Latin America to the US, Europe and Africa.

Gradually, you realize that these highly diverse documents are piecing together the known fragments of the lives of the elusive Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Every witness has a different take on them. One speaker may have known one of the guys because he came to her house to take showers. Another person may have spent time with one of them in prison. An elderly man, the most frequently recurring speaker, spends his many appearances reminiscing about one long night of talking with the two poets and plying them with powerful booze. One of the most distinctive voices is that of a British woman who – and it takes ages to figure out this connection – once had an affair with one of our heroes when he was working as a security guard at a camp ground in Spain. One speaker, you gradually begin to suspect, is developmentally challenged. When an editor is describing a meeting in a publisher’s office, it takes you several pages to figure out who is speaking and what is going on but that doesn’t matter because the speaker’s voice is so compelling.

That’s the genius of this work: every voice conveys a distinctive personality. One of my favourites is a feisty stripper who rents a room in her apartment to one of the guys; she’s always on his case, harranguing him about getting his shit together. As with all of the witness statements, hers truly sounds like the voice of someone speaking. (A lot of credit is surely due to translator Natasha Wimmer who has managed to give it all a very colloquial flair.) True to the vocal context, you get run-on sentences, paragraphs that last for pages and pages, no quotation marks for dialogue – all of it just the way people dole out their memories.

So what is the point of this un-conventional narrative style? The brilliance of it, I think, is that it feels so like life. When it comes to our knowledge of somebody, we hear something from an old girl friend of his, another bit from a former classmate, something from an ex-wife, maybe a neighbour, a childhood friend. It’s all jumbled, with a few vivid details piercing the fog, but it gradually comes together to form our impression of that person, even if some fairly important questions remain unanswered.

As for instance, the outcome of a sword duel that one of the poets engaged in. An eye-witness account of the fearsome encounter breaks off without any conclusion. Much later, we hear an off-hand remark by the poet involved, saying that the man who was his opponent in the duel is now his friend. Isn’t that exactly the way so many things go in life? You’re burning with curiosity to find out how somebody’s ordeal turned out but, years later, you overhear some comment that indicates that the huge crisis was no big deal after all.

For the last fifty pages, we go back to 1976 with young Juan and his three friends, speeding across the desert. Juan entertains them for several pages by testing the poets on abstruse literary terms (eg. molossus, ictus, epanadiplosis, catachresis). Then they play a game of trying to assign meanings to very simple line drawings – which are reproduced in the text. What on earth, you might ask, is author Bolao up to? I don’t know. Except to say that he’s conveying his enthusiasm for the nutty ways people will behave.

Sometimes that enthusiasm overflows the bounds of the novel. A science-fiction passage about cloning doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have anything to do with anything. One page listing the fine distinctions in the varieties of homosexuals would be offensive except that it’s so silly. A page consisting mainly of names of writers – about 200 of them – would seem to be nothing but a waste of ink and paper. A lawyer goes on for twenty pages, spouting Latin phases (about ten per page) that few readers could be expected to understand. One poet keeps citing wonky arithmetic to explain the meaning of things, which doesn’t explain anything, as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, when one of the poets disappears at a conference in Nicaragua, an interview with a police inspector develops into a memorable scene of surrealist comedy turning on the subjects of tobacco, literature and the meaning of life. When the inspector asks if the missing poet had any "weakness", one of the Mexican writers answers that, "....one never knew, the profession was as diverse as humanity itself, and humanity, as we well know, was a conglomeration of weaknesses." That just about sums up the theme of this book. Whatever else Roberto Bolao may have been trying to accomplish, he has succeeded superlatively well in conveying his sense of that bewildering species we know as humanity.

After reading the book, I checked out various references to the author, something I don’t ordinarily do before committing myself in a review. Given my own enthusiasm for the book, it was gratifying to discover that it has won some important prizes and that some critics consider it the most important work of Latin American literature of our time. I’d gladly second the nomination, not least because the book is utterly free of the taint of Magic Realism that, for me, spoils so much work from the Latin culture. Apparently, the book is based to a large extent on the author’s peripatetic life as an avant garde poet and radical. It comes as sad news to learn that he died of liver disease at the age of fifty in 2003. But he did leave behind other books which will eventually find their way to my reading pile – possibly even in the form of purchased copies.

 

Idomeneo (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Andrew Parrott; starring Kresimir Spicer, Michael Maniaci, Measha Bruggergosman, Peggy Hriha Dye, Curtis Sullivan; Tafelmusik orchestra, dancers, chorus, etc. CBC Radio Two "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera", May 31/08

Opera Atelier’s recent production of Idomeno had to proceed without my presence because I’m mad at the company for reasons which we don't need to go into here. (See review of their production of Don Giovanni, Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 5/04). However, this broadcast of the company’s Idomeneo made me wish I’d set aside my grudge and attended the performance.

Actually, I didn’t tune in to the broadcast until near the end of the first act. It was the astounding voice of Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer in the title role that caught my attention. Unlike any tenor I’ve ever heard, he has the hefty, masculine sound of a baritone but he can scale the heights like any tenor. I can only imagine that it must have been thrilling to watch him. (If I were Mr. Spicer's teacher, my only suggestion would be to try to develop a more ringing head tone on the high notes.)

It was also very enjoyable to hear the lovely singing of male soprano, Michael Maniaci. Host Bill Richardson’s intermission interview with him was enlightening except that there was no explanation offered as to how the male soprano voice differs from that of the counter tenor. To my ears, the male soprano sounds somewhat more womanly, actually much more beautiful than the counter tenor voice, but with a touch of maleness still in the lower register. I would have appreciated a technical explanation, though.

In her Opera Atelier debut, Measha Bruggergosman sang splendidly, as did  Peggy Kriha Dye and Curtis Sullivan. Given that I was getting this show by radio, I’ll refrain from commenting on how the dancers did and simply pass along the report that they were excellent.

 

In Tune (Radio) hosted by Catherine Duncan; CBC Radio Two, Saturday May 31/08, 5 pm.

The premise of this program raises some concerns. According to the promos, host Catherine Duncan will feature, each week, the classical recordings that are topping the charts. Is this a tacit recognition on the part of the head honchos at CBC Radio Two that, come this fall, when they plan to severely cut back on classical music, we will be forced to buy more CD’s to supply our daily fix of good music?

In any case, I had not planned to listen to the program because the latest reports on sales of CD’s – classical or otherwise – don’t interest me. Rather than collecting recordings, I prefer to take what the good old CBC, as we have known it until now, throws at us. That way you’re opened up to lots of great classical music that you’d never otherwise hear. However, at the top of her debut program, Ms. Duncan cleverly mentioned Juan Diego Florez’ spectacular performance of "Ah mes amis!" from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. The recording didn’t come until the very end of the program, which shows that Ms Duncan knows what she’s doing: she had me hooked for the whole hour.

The best thing about the program is Ms. Duncan’s relaxed, congenial manner. She sounds very contemporary and unstuffy; she never comes across as pedantic. Yet she doesn’t sound out of her depth as do some young radio personalities when they try to deal with classical music. The program included one item about how one’s appreciation of wine can be influenced by the type of music playing in the background. I didn’t need to hear this bit of fluff but it was mildly entertaining.

One item, however, did catch me by the lapels and force me to pay attention: a selection from the recording of the Goldberg Variations by the American pianist Simona Dinnerstein. In introducing the item, Ms. Duncan gave the impression that, until hearing this recording, she always thought Glenn Gould owned the Goldbergs. I don’t share that opinion. Doesn't matter, the selections from the Dinnerstein recording were spell-binding. Ms Dinnerstein played the opening aria a great deal more slowly than we’re accustomed to hearing it and yet the long, singing line was miraculously sustained. The left hand was played so softly that it felt like another voice singing along from another room. The effect was mesmerizing.

One could almost say that the discovery of that recording itself made the program worth listening to. But the Florez performance, when we finally got to it, was great fun too.

 

Coleman Barks and Andrew Harvey: Rumi (Radio) "Tapestry" CBC Radio One, June 1/08

This program from last fall was re-broadcast because it recently won the prestigious Wilbur award. On the original airing, I had liked it very much. Indeed, it prompted me to do some more reading about the great Sufi mystic Rumi, the subject of the program. (See Dilettante's Diary review of Rumi, Gazing at the Beloved, Jan 17/08). But I couldn’t remember that the program had been outstanding.

In his first few words on air, Coleman Barks established his persona as a warm, wise, folksy man who speaks in a charming Southern US drawl, even though he is a highly respected academic and poet. He sounds like the kind of grandad whose knee you’d like to sit on – metaphorically at least – no matter how old you are. About half way through the program, host Mary Hynes asked Mr. Barks what he would say to the aetheist writers who are making such a splash these days with their diatribes against religion. There was a space of several seconds during which you could hear Mr. Barks thinking. A few inchoate murmurs and vocalizations showed how hard he was trying to come up with the most sincere, most honest answer he could. Finally he blurted out, "To me it feels like a sacred world." (Not having had a pencil handy, I can’t claim the quote is exact but it’s close.) Then he went on to explain why the world feels sacred to him: because he knows and experiences love. He would ask the aetheists, "You love your grandchildren, don’t you? Well, that’s all you need. To me, that’s God."

Another highlight of the program, I’d remembered from the previous broadcast. So much so, that it had fed my thoughts for days afterwards. Ms. Hines’ other guest, Andrew Harvey, told the story about the young monk who travelled a long way to visit the revered mystic Rumi. On the outskirts of the city, the traveller unexpectedly encountered Rumi coming towards him, whereupon he threw himself prostrate on the ground. When he got up, he found that Rumi had prostrated himself too. The young monk protested vehemently at the great mystic's prostrating himself before a mere neophyte. Rumi’s answer: "how can I be of any help to you unless I show you my nothingness?"

Just in those two items, you’ve got your prize-winning program.

 

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Novel) by Michael Chabon, 2007

I very much enjoyed some of Michael Chabon’s earlier writing, such as his novels The Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. (Re the latter, how could anybody not love a novel with a title that flirts so deliciously with oxymoron?) His short stories in The New Yorker of some years ago had lots to offer too. He was writing about ordinary people that you and I know but who had something especially quirky and interesting about them.

Then came more recent works. The Final Solution, Mr. Chabon’s somewhat warped take on the British mystery, seemed misconceived to me (See Dilettante's Diary review, July 10/05). As for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Mr. Chabon’s paean of praise to pioneers of the comic book industry and his take on the America of the mid 20th century, my reading of it came before the birth of Dilettante’s Diary. The world, therefore, lacks a written record of my precise thoughts on the book. The way, I remember it now, my appreciation was muted, compared to the acclaim that greeted this Pulitzer-winner. I doggedly ploughed through to the end but could not get as enthused about the culture of comic books as the author seemed to want me to be. Nor was it possible for me to enter fully into the cultural milieu of the two young entrepreneurs.

So I approached his latest novel warily. The premise is that the state of Israel failed in 1948 and displaced Jews were shipped to the Sitka region of Alaska to make a quasi-state for themselves. Now, sixty years later, the area is to revert to US control and the Jewish inhabitants will be forced to settle elsewhere. In this context, a murder takes place in a cheap hotel. The victim is a lonely Jewish chess player, little known by anyone. Meyer Landsman, a boozy detective on the skids and a resident of the same hotel, takes on the case.

The character of the seedy detective isn’t exactly new. Nor is the role of the ball-breaking female boss. The fact that this one happens to be the detective’s ex-wife may be unique; I’m not sure. In any case, Mr. Chabon does a fine job with the characters. Landsman, his ex-wife and colleagues are never less than interesting and well-rounded.

There’s some terrific writing here. Such as this line: "The clock on the hospital wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snapping of pieces of the night with its minute hand." One unforgettable scene features a son, in disguise, coming to bid farewell forever to his mother. I didn’t even mind when the proceedings began to edge into the fantastical with talk about the miraculous doings of a sort of Messiah (called a Tzaddik Ha-Dor) because Mr. Chabon had made the character believable and sympathetic.

Among the many more gems, there’s this evocation of someone’s rootless feeling: "Every so often he feels his heart catch, like a kite on a telephone wire, on something that seems to promise him a home in the world or a means of getting there." And this zinger: "A Messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment." If it’s irreverence you want, this should do it for you: "....the crystal set that is handed out to every Jew, tuned to receive transmissions from Messiah, resonates at the sight of Bina’s ass...." About the detective’s boss, we get this observation:

"Her gaze is not as comprehensive as his – she misses the details sometimes – but the things she does see, she can link up quickly in her mind to the things that she knows about women and men, victims and murderers. She can shape them with confidence into narratives that hold together and make sense. She does not solve cases so much as tell the stories of them."

With so many very good ingredients, it’s a pity to have to say that, over all, the dish disappoints. In terms simply of writing style, the many Jewish expressions on every page make the going bumpy for someone not very familiar with the culture. Another trait that may have to do with culture is the "tale telling": going back in history and relating long, elaborate stories to bolster the current material. The whole fifth chapter functions this way. Such belaboured narrative may be appropriate in certain contexts but it tends to drag down a mystery.

As such, the book doesn’t by any means measure up to the best of the genre. There’s the old clich of the sinister "Higher-Ups" who interfere with the detective’s pursuit of the criminal. We get the "deus-ex-machina" ploy: our hero is running away from some bad guys in hot pursuit, when who should pop out of the woods on motorcycle to rescue him but a character we’ve never heard of. Even so, there are too many instances of our hero’s surviving, with just minor scratches, traumas that would have finished off any real person.

What bothers me most about the book is that the ultimate mystery hinges on esoteric biblical prophecy and the ramifications involve the machinations of far-flung characters and complicated logistics. There a came a point where I found it difficult to follow – or care. As for the detective's figuring out the actual circumstances of the victim’s death, you can’t appreciate fully what’s going on without a good knowledge of chess, something lacking in this department.

I can’t help wishing Mr. Chabon would get back to writing about ordinary people in relatively normal situations. His writing of late seems to have taken a playful turn; he seems to need to include an element of the weird and far-fetched, rather than sticking to the life most of us know. The unfortunate effect, for me, is that the profound things he may be saying – and I grant that there may be some here – get lost in the fanciful imaginings.

 

Fell of Dark (Mystery) by Reginald Hill, 1998

British author Reginald Hill isn’t exactly a newcomer, having published over thirty acclaimed crime novels, but I couldn’t remember having read any of his books. This one started out to be terrifically good. Two guys on a hiking trip in the Lakes district of England suddenly find themselves the prime suspects in the murder of two women hikers. Necessarily, it takes a certain amount of flash-back to set up the circumstances, but gradually, even the most insignificant details of their activities in the past few days serve to draw the noose tighter around the necks of these two men. Taught, suspenseful crime writing of the best order.

After about sixty pages, though, one of the men (the narrator of the book) bolts. The rest of the novel becomes a chase across open country, with refuge in various cubbyholes. The episodic "road" novel isn’t one of my favourite genres, especially when it supercedes what was shaping up to be a tightly-plotted mystery. But even after the mystery is solved, the novel goes on for several pages in a superfluous treatise on the narrator’s fraught relationship with his spouse. The effect is of an ill-advised attempt to be literary and existential.

Something else bugged me about this novel but I was willing to overlook it for the sake of the mystery. Since that turned out to be disappointing, there’s no point stifling my complaints on this score: the clichd portrayal of a homosexual character who attempts to seduce every young male he encounters. The narrator professes an open-minded attitude to homosexuality but the writer’s treatment of the character says otherwise. Said homosexual is said to have had a "mental breakdown" and there’s much palaver about the delicate state of his mind. I began to wonder if it’s mainly British writers who are prone to such a fatuous take on things or if this is a particular trait of Mr. Hill’s writing. Then I discovered on the "Mysteries/Crime" page of Dilettante’s Diary (towards the bottom of the navigation bar) reviews of two other Hill novels with similarly "twee" tendencies. Moral: a person should consult the listings in his own website now and then.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com