Dilettante's Diary

July 4, 2022

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Head to Head
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: Hamlet (Opera); The Investigator (Mystery/Thriller); Raft of Stars (Novel); Orwell's Roses (Nature, Ecology, Sociology); My Heart ("Novel"); The Water Will Come (Science)

Hamlet (Opera) by Brett Dean, libretto by Matthew Jocelyn, production by Neil Armfield, conducted by Nicholas Carter; starring Allan Clayton, Brenda Rae, Sarah Connolly, William Burden, Rod Gilfry, John Relyea, Jacques Imbrailo, David Butt Philip, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Christopher Lowrey; with Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, HD Live Transmission, June 4, 2022

While I'm not exactly a connoisseur of contemporary classical music, it's always interesting to see what innovations creative people can apply to what's often considered the greatest play in the English repertoire. Hence, my attendance at this Met Opera Live in HD performance of composer Brett Dean's Hamlet.

First, let's be clear about the fact that the structure of the opera doesn't follow the outline of the play. Against a background of ominous rumbling from the orchestra, we start in darkness, until a pinpoint light gradually opens on Hamlet's hands covering his face in an agonized way. Crouched on the floor, he starts murmuring -- or singing -- over and over, "Or not to be...or not to be..." Then comes a banquet that seems to be a celebration of the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet lurking as a dark cloud over the proceedings. Later, we get the appearance of his father's ghost, the scene that opens the play. Much of the play is condensed in this opera version; the sub-plot about Fortinbras is completely excised. As with the opera's opening, we often get familiar lines and fragments of famous speeches in contexts quite other than in the play. On the other hand, you miss some of the beloved lines that have been omitted. I particularly felt the loss of Gertrude's beautiful lines about the death of Ophelia.

All of this, I think, serves to shed new light on how the play might be seen. For me, it comes across as, not so much a real enactment of Hamlet's plight and the straight forward telling of his attempted revenge for his father's murder, but rather as a sort of Freudian nightmare in which he's brooding about the situation obsessively. None of it seems quite like real life. That could be one reason why nearly all the characters' faces are painted white. I think that's meant to emphasize that they're actors, performers, emanations of Hamlet's fevered imagination rather than real people. (Except I don't know why Gertrude and Horatio are the two major characters who don't appear in white face.)

Allan Clayton delivered the title role with tremendous authority -- not surprisingly, since the piece was written for him. His voice soared with stentorian clarity above the strident sounds from the orchestra. And yet, he made a somewhat ingenuous Hamlet: round-faced, boyish, with tousled brown hair and beard. Like many heavy-set men, he was very light on his feet, dancing among rows of courtiers and mocking them when they couldn't see him. The capricious side of him extended to pranks like tying Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's shoes to each other. But there was never any question that he was deranged. When asked, during the intermission interview, what's next for him, Mr. Clayton responded: it's all downhill from here. Quite! Hard to imagine any role more demanding and fulfilling.

Nearly all the other performances, as expected, kept to the Met's high standard. The only one that troubled me was Brenda Rae's, as Ophelia. From the get-go, she played Ophelia as anxious, nervous, twitching and twisting, her face contorted, grimacing all the time. Why such a neurotic take on the character? Was this what the production team asked for? No question, though, that Miss Rae's singing excelled in the stratospheric gymnastics required of it.

Rosencrantz (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) and Guildenstern (Christopher Lowrey), both counter-tenors, acted almost as marionette twins, a sort of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, their, their moves perfectly choreographed. There was also a decidedly gay flavour to their shtick. I wondered if this would raise any objections from gay men -- or from counter tenors, for that matter -- but I suppose this interpretation of the characters was fair enough, given that they appear pretty much as stooges in Shakespeare's play.

As for the look of the production, the highly adaptable set suggested towering castle walls in a generic way. The men were mostly wearing tuxedos, and the women were garbed in stiff satin gowns that had a 1960s look to them. Same for their hair styles. I was puzzled by only one costuming decision -- or what should probably be termed a non-costuming decision. John Reylea, as the ghost of Hamlet's father, appeared shirtless, i.e. his torso naked. What was the point of this? Maybe it was meant to suggest that one's buried father, having lost his clothing as he struggled to get out of his grave, might very well be nude, but it would be too much to ask an opera singer to go that far. A viewer might also have asked why Claudius (Rod Gilfry) wore his crown all the time, but maybe that was another of those tactics to show him as a presence in Hamlet's mind rather than a person in real life.

While the staging was inventive and imaginative throughout -- Hamlet's dalliance with a little hand puppet at one point provided a poignant moment -- the climactic scene was truly thrilling in its mayhem. You felt that a completely spontaneous brawl was breaking out. Especially when Claudius grabbed a chair and wielded it as a kind of shield to try to defend himself from the onslaught.

Not having any expertise when it comes to contemporary classical music, I'm in no position to give much of an evaluation of the opera's score, with its sometimes bizarre elements. I can say, though, that it established and enhanced the story's moods effectively. In a pre-recorded video shown during the intermission, Conductor Nicholas Carter gave a helpful explanation of some of the orchestra's most unusual components. An item meant to provide a metallic sound looked like a bed spring. One of the most striking things about the interview, however, was the youthful look of the conductor. Handsome in a prep school way, he seemed to be barely thirty years old. I suppose it stands to reason that only a young conductor would want to take on such a difficult work. Older, more established conductors would quail at such a daunting challenge.

The Investigator (Mystery/Thriller) by John Sandford, 2022

It's a good day when we spot a new John Sandford on the library shelves. In The Investigator, he's introducing us to a new hero. Not that she's an entirely new character in his oeuvre. She's Letty Davenport, the adopted daughter of Lucas Davenport, the star of so many previous Sandford books, and his wife, Weather. Letty, twenty-four-years-old now, has been doing routine research in the offices of a U.S. senator. The senator, having twigged to some of Letty's special abilities, has asked her to take on an investigation into thefts of oil from some fields in Texas. The big concern is that the stealing is, perhaps, being done by a right-wing militia that's planning to fund an anarchic assault with the profits from the sales of the stolen oil. References to recent calamities like the Covid pandemic and the January 6th, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol help to make this book feel up-to-the-minute.

As usual, there's an enjoyable feel to John Sandford's writing. I like the way he builds the story steadily and carefully; you never feel that you're getting unnecessary frills; you feel confident that everything's always leading to something. And yet, I found that this book lacks something of the quality of most of the author's previous books. That may be partly because of Letty's character. She's meant to be one of these feisty young women who's very conscious of her rights. She'll threaten to shoot the balls off a guy who displays a sexist attitude. Her troubled background before she was adopted by the Davenports, her hunting and trapping, her having killed a couple of aggressors, equip her with the skills and fortitude to make a formidable agent of justice. And yet, I never found her particularly engaging. Maybe that's partly because of her almost complete lack of humour, a quality that's so likeable in her dad and Virgil Flowers, Mr. Sandford's two heroes in his other books.

In this quest, Letty is teamed up with a forty-ish ex-army master sergeant who is a veteran of the "oil wars." Their venture is undertaken under the aegis of the Division of Homeland Security. The man is dismissive of Letty as a capable partner until it turns out, at a shooting range, that she's as good a shot as he is. Now, he's admiring and accepting, all sexism banished from his attitude to her. Is that supposed to make us like or admire him more -- the fact that he can't respect a woman unless she proves that she's his equal in some skill that he thought was a male prerogative?

One thing that I like about Sandford novels is that you're often following the bad guys for part of the story and they're usually shown to be complex characters, not simple villains. That's the case here. The woman who is the anonymous leader of the problematic militia is shown to be someone who is sincere, who doesn't want to cause death or injury if avoidable, but who feels that her militia's actions are necessary for the preservation of the America that she loves. However, I found the machinations of these militia members not very interesting. In their discussions -- as in the exchanges between Letty and her partner -- there's one hell of a lot of talk about types of guns and what each one is capable of. (This appears to be a major interest of the author's.) None of this meant anything to me.

The unknown purpose of some explosives stolen from a military base was meant to be seen as an intriguing part of the mystery. Although I didn't find anything mysterious about what was going to happen, the climactic scene of the book does prove to be suspenseful and well-plotted -- even for a reader who couldn't possibly follow all the detail about the various highways and roads being traversed in southern Texas.

Raft of Stars (Novel) by Andrew J. Graff, 2021

It's 1994 and we're in the back woods of Wisconsin. Two ten-year-old boys nicknamed Fish and Bread have become friends. Fish, whose father is dead, has been visiting his maternal grandfather on his farm for the past few summers. Bread lives down the road with an abusive, alcoholic father. The two boys are on the lam now, hiking through the woods, because Fish picked up a gun and shot Bread's father when the man was indulging in a particularly violent threat towards his son. Having left the man for dead on his kitchen floor, the boys are ostensibly heading for a refuge that Bread thinks is reachable, but Fish knows it's imaginary.

I liked the mood of this book, the atmosphere. The feeling of trekking through rough territory brought back vivid memories of a lot of boyhood adventures. Clearly, the author greatly enjoyed that sort of activity in his own boyhood (as mentioned on the blurb on the book's jacket flap) and he's pouring all his love for it into this story. Also, the camaraderie of the two boys is conveyed well. Their bluster, their bravado, their posturing for each other, as well as their fears and insecurities, not to mention the rare moments of tenderness, come across as entirely believable.

Although the story's slow-moving for the most part, it includes lots of drama and suspense. (I could, however, have done without the cliché of the terrible storm that whips up a frenzy at the climax of the book.) The characters who are trying to find the boys -- Fish's mother and his grandfather, the sheriff and a woman who works at a gas station coffee shop -- are vividly and sympathetically portrayed, all of them with back stories resulting in psyches that are worth delving into. The focus on these few characters gives the novel a tight, succinct coherence.

However, a couple of things about the book bothered me.

The first is that there are some anomalies in terms of point of view. When Mr. Graff is conveying the thoughts of Fish, he does so credibly and convincingly most of the time. But sometimes he'll throw in a thought that seems far too sophisticated for a ten-year-old boy. For instance, Fish's reflection on the gun that he used for the shooting and that the boys brought with them: " ... there was dread in that beautiful Smith & Wesson, a kind of darkness in all that daylight." And this, after some thoughts about food: "But Fish felt dogged by something darker, some menacing doubt ... [my ellipses] ... He wondered what Adam must have felt like that first night outside the garden." And: "Fish was met by an overwhelming certainty that something irrevocable was about to be broken." Also: "He [Fish] felt as if the wilderness was trying to answer a question he couldn't remember asking." While these observations are interesting and worthwhile in their own right, they take me outside the mind of the boy and make me too aware of the writer who is showing his own talent and erudition.

Another irritating aspect of the book is the author's penchant for describing certain actions and maneuvers in extreme detail. We get prolonged instructions on how to paddle a canoe. How to build and light a fire in the outdoors is explained at least twice. For six pages, a man struggles in a raging river. The description of a storm's havoc goes on for twelve pages. It could be that other readers enjoy this sort of thing. They want to ride along on every dip and twist, every curve of the roller coaster. I tend to skim over these "action sequences." For me, the satisfaction of reading a novel comes from the way characters navigate the tricky shoals of interpersonal relations, not so much rivers and woods.

But the ending hit me as touching and emotionally rewarding, even though the book made me impatient at times.

Orwell's Roses (Nature, Ecology) by Rebecca Solnit, 2021

On visiting the cottage that George Orwell had occupied towards the end of his life, Rebecca Solnit, the author of some 26 highly acclaimed non-fiction books, was thrilled to find that some rose bushes he'd planted in 1936 were still blooming. In Orwell's Roses, Ms. Solnit has taken this discovery and mulled it over at length. Her free-ranging ramble brings in multiple subjects that Orwell's roses bring to her mind. And, sprinkled through her reflections are frequent references to Orwell's various works. She cites one essay of his as a "triumph of meandering." In fact, the word 'meander' occurs three times in her first chapter. Perhaps that's meant as a warning that we're not dealing here with a tightly worked, logical exposition, not a hard-hitting journalistic exposé.

Early on, Ms. Solnit says that Orwell's interest in roses tends to subvert the conventional notion of him as a stern Jeremiah excoriating the evils of his age. Soon, we're on to roses in songs, fairy tales and recipes. Roses, Ms. Solnit notes, can mean everything, "which skates close to meaning nothing." Gradually, her subject starts broadening. She compares the tangible benefits of gardening to the nebulous benefits of writing. Perhaps, she suggests, the meaning of gardening in wartime is that it attempts to make whole again what has been shattered. A discussion of the Carboniferous era (about 359 to 299 million years ago) explains how coal came to be formed underground and that leads to a discussion of Orwell's exploration of the hellish world of coal mining.

References to Tina Modotti's celebrated 1924 photograph of roses leads eventually to a discussion of her activism and her association with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which leads to the subjects of Communism and Stalinism, the Ukraine Famine and totalitarianism. This, of course, brings up Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Along the way, there are references to Vermeer, Henry David Thoreau and Alice in Wonderland, to mention just a few. Eventually we get to the subject of slavery and how it accounted for the fortunes of the Blairs, Orwell's ancestors. (Eric Blair was the writer's name before he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell). That leads to the writer Jamaica Kincaid and how much she loathed the British dominance of Antigua, her homeland, where British culture prevented her from learning the names of native flowers in her own language. Ms. Solnit's visit to a Bogota rose factory reveals working conditions that convince you that it isn't a good idea to buy imported roses at the grocery store -- in case you hadn't already come to that conclusion because of the carbon footprint involved in flying them to North America.

This, then, is the kind of book where a thoughtful writer grabs a theme, subjects it to her cerebration and research, coming up with fascinating insights and hypotheses that might never have occurred to most of us. It's a great book if you're looking for that kind of thing. Perhaps readers who are familiar with Ms. Solnit's voice and who have admired the workings of her mind as displayed in her many previous books will savour this one more than I did.

What I enjoyed most were the passages where Ms. Solnit reports -- in clear, vivid, concrete prose -- the facts of Orwell's life: his service in the Spanish Civil War, his marriage to Eileen O'Shaughnessy, their adoption of a boy, Orwell's publishing history, his ill health and so on. I found the profusion of ideas less engaging.

Even so, I kept trying to see if there was one definite message to take from the book. What was the point of it, after all? Towards the very end, that came through to me. Ms. Solnit lists some of the major crises challenging us today: climate change, human rights, democracy, media, technology, gender and race. She feels that Orwell's approach to life -- his ruthless honesty, his candour, his love of nature, his horror of bullshit and cant, his acknowledgement that we're humans, not saints -- helps us to get the right perspective on these things. And, somehow, his earthy, humble devotion to his roses sums it all up.

My Heart (Novel) by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, 2017, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth, 2021

First of all ... what's with this recent fad for so-called "autobiographical novels"? Why are writers serving up memoirs and labelling them as novels? Are they trying to escape the charge that some aspects of the books might not be quite true to life? Do they feel that cloaking their experiences and their feelings in the guise of fiction will make them somehow more meaningful, will give them more resonance?

Whatever an author's reasons for doing so, we know that My Heart closely parallels events that did happen in the life of Semezdin Mehmedinovic. A well known Bosnian writer, he emigrated to the United States with his family in 1996, after the Siege of Sarajevo. The book is divided into three parts. The first part (just 35 pages) tells about his heart attack at the age of fifty while living in the Washington, D.C. area. In the second part, he reminisces about a road trip that he and his son took through the U.S. The third part of the book tells how he and his wife Sanja dealt with the consequences of her suffering a stroke.

His own medical crisis -- it hit when he was taking a morning shower -- came as a dull, metallic pain in his chest and throat, and the taste of cement on his tongue. (Or so he says. Who knows what cement tastes like?) When a medical attendant who arrived at his apartment told him that he was having a heart attack, he says, it was like a scene in movie that's shown in slow motion, sometimes without sound. At such a moment, he says, the mind works "like a cold camera lens." The shock didn't hit him until some ambulance attendants filled the room. "This was something that happened to other people, not to me, and it was something I recoiled from." On the ambulance ride, though, he began to see everything, not just as a participant, but also as an outside observer. He thought: "It's good, just let it all pass. I'm tired. I want to close my eyes and not remember. I want it all to stop."

In hospital came the de-personalized feeling of being handled by strangers. What hit him was "the realization that my body, at this moment, is an object conveying nothing. My corporality is asexual ... [my ellipses] ... I am what is left of me, my mortal remains, as I lie in my bathrobe, under which I am naked." Then came the usual events of hospital life: the strange and sometimes alarming medical procedures, the kibitzing with medical staff, fraternizing with a roommate. One definite outcome for Mr. Mehmedinovic: the decision to stop smoking. On his return home, all ashtrays had been removed; there was no hint of tobacco smoke in the air.

The second part of the book, addressed as a letter to his son Harun, is much less straight-forward in its narrative style. It takes a long time to understand that Harun is a photographer who specializes in nighttime photos, and that father is reminiscing about a somewhat helter-skelter trip that that two men took to visit their former home in Phoenix.

Although the travelogue is filled with fascinating details, it's the author's insights into life that showed me why he's considered an important writer. In fact, it was the following quote, cited in a review of the book, that persuaded me to order it from the library. After sitting awake all night in Harun's parked car, Mr. Mehmedinovic has this thought as dawn breaks over a desert: "Why fill our lives with such effort and torment, when we know that we will be here only once and when we have such a brief and unrepeatable time in this indescribably beautiful world?"

Among his other striking ideas ... "Others on the whole see us as we would not like them to see us. And the way others see us is the root of our shame." About our tendency to hurry: "Where does our need to accelerate time come from? From impatience to arrive in the near future into which we have projected our trifling desires." About chatting with people we've just met: "People gladly engage in conversation not out of mere curiosity, but from caution. They aren't interested in who you are, they want confirmation that you're normal and don't represent a threat."

Some of his keenest observations have to do with fathers and their sons. "Is there anything in the world more complicated than the father-son relationship?" He and Harun can seldom agree on anything. He remembers how Harun, as a young man, defiantly asserted that he wasn't at all interested in literature. Clearly, this was meant as a way to separate himself from his distinguished father. Even after father and son have travelled together in an attempt to get to know each other better, when it comes time to part, "what is most important always remains unsaid!"

Setting aside any issue of confusion arising from the free-wheeling narrative, My Heart is a lovely little book, beautifully produced. I like the fact that it consists of short pieces -- most of them no more than a half a page or a page in length. That makes the writer feel like a congenial companion, someone not too demanding on one's attention. You get occasional glimpses of the strife back in Sarajevo -- a night the family spent in a shelter, say -- but not much sense of the nightmare the family left behind. Sprinkled through the text are Mr. Mehmedinovic's drawings of various sites or characters he mentions. The drawings are skillful -- up to a point -- without being breath-takingly good art. The main effect of them is that you get a fuller sense of the man who's creating this book. It feels good to know that he's taking time with the drawings as well as with the writing.

The section of the book dealing with his wife's stroke is more conventional in its narrative style; it's relatively easy to keep track of what's going on. The scenario of the morning of the actual stroke is repeated several times because Sanja can't remember what happened nor can she remember her husband's re-tellings of it. So he has to keep telling it to her over and over. The most important point in all this -- what makes it worth writing about -- is the couple's changed relationship brought about by the stroke. Remembering how he felt when sitting by her bed in hospital, he has this thought: "The warmth of her hand and her whole sleeping body was the only acceptable reality for me." He reflects on the way catastrophe affects their relationship. It seems like a paradox, he says, but "a tragic event increases our inner strength and our capacity for love."

When they get back home, he hopes her memories will come back as she begins to see again their familiar world, but that doesn't happen. Not that she has amnesia; she can, surprisingly, remember some fragments of poetry quite well. But she can't retain memories of events that he tells her about. That's one of the saddest things about their situation now: shared memories have vanished. Unable to remember that she's had a stroke, she feels every morning like she's waking up from a dream -- or that this is all a dream she'll soon wake from. She watches the same film -- Pride and Prejudice -- every day. Friends don't come to visit them, he notes, because people are afraid of illness. Even her bosses in the company where she worked for eighteen years -- apparently it's a Catholic charity meant to provide support to refugees -- don't call to ask how Sanja's doing.

He does -- almost inadvertently, it would seem -- reveal slight cracks in the firm structure of their love. For instance, he cites one rule of their relationship: "Everything that occurs, is, after all, my fault." Maybe that's such a cliché about male-female relationships that it should be taken humorously rather than seriously. In any case, the deep and abiding love take precedence. I particularly like the way he illustrates that in domestic, quotidian details. (He's not always the erudite philosopher.) He's entranced, for instance, while watching Sanja sewing a button on a shirt. That sight, he says, is "an important image from my childhood that restores harmony to the world. Something in that act really awakens primordial memories." He's thrilled when she sends him a message at work, saying that she ironed all his shirts and kissed every one. "I can't stop thinking about those kisses," he says, "as though a hundred cats were tickling my soul with their soft paws."

Ultimately, he finds: "It's enough for her to straighten the collar of my shirt, and that touch calms everything in the universe. Misfortune has reduced us to our essence. And nothing is left of us, apart from love."

The Water Will Come (Science) by Jeff Goodell, 2017

If the current state of the world doesn't give you enough to worry about, this book will do it for you. In short, what author Jeff Goodell has to say is that, with lackadaisical efforts to limit the global warming that's causing sea waters to rise, lots of coastline communities, and indeed some whole countries, are in for deep trouble.

Of course, this isn't news to most of us. We've been hearing talk like this for a long time, but Mr. Goodell martials abundant scientific evidence, gobs of statistics and tons of financial analysis to convince all but the stubbornest skeptic that the threat is real and the prospects are dire.

Not to say that there isn't any hope. He looks at interesting attempts to cope with the problem, such as a floating school room made out of wood in the frequently-flooded Makoko area of Lagos, Nigeria. He provides character sketches of many visionary thinkers and inventors who are doing their damnedest to face the problem as realistically and practically as possible.

In a book like this, one inevitably finds a lot of hypothetical or conditional statements. Terms that keep cropping up along the lines of: 'likely outcome,' 'probable result,' 'little doubt, 'considered opinion,' and so on. To make his point, Mr. Goodell sometimes resorts to a rather rhetorical tone (this probably helps sell a book like this) rather than sticking to dry facts. That means that there's room for the climate change deniers to jump in and challenge Mr. Goodell's claims, to sweep them off the board completely with bravado. But I don't think any reasonable person could fail to take his warnings seriously.

Much of the book's message probably comes through most urgently to American readers, given that Mr. Goodell returns repeatedly to problem areas in the US such Miami and New York City, as well as a US military base and a nuclear facility that have been built, with astounding lack of foresight, on land especially vulnerable to flooding. It seems that Miami, from the get-go, has been a disaster waiting to happen in environmental terms.

In the overall world view, some places are in even more dire peril. The Marshall Islands, for instance, will be completely wiped away if sea waters keep rising at the rate forecast according to the current outlook. The world will be facing a huge refugee crisis as a result of the rising waters. In places like Lagos, Nigeria, a kind of climate apartheid is shaping up: the rich retreating to safe, walled precincts while the less privileged are left to wallow in increasingly watery parts of the city.

In many of these areas, the thinking of civic leaders and developers -- even among residents who aren't involved in politics -- is a sort of 'head-in-the-sand' approach to the problem: a refusal to acknowledge that the sand their heads are buried in is getting washed away bit by bit. The venality of corrupt governments and corporations that put personal profit ahead of communal wellbeing looms large in this story. Mr. Goodell notes that many Republicans will automatically reject any proposition that includes the word 'climate.' Others, although aware of the pending problems, blithely put their hope in the much-vaunted resilience of humanity. They envision our scientific ingenuity coming up with some miraculous solution to the environmental crisis.

The book opens with what some might see as a kind of sci-fi vision of Miami as a new "Atlantis" in the not-too-distant future. The transformation starts with a huge hurricane in 2037 that turns the city into something of an open sewer. By the end of the century, Miami becomes "a popular diving spot where people could swim among sharks and barnacled SUVs and explore the wreckage of a great American city."

An exaggeration? A demented illusion? We shall see.

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