The Miracle Club (Movie) written by Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer; directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan;
starring Maggie Smith, Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Agnes O’Casey, Mark O’Halloran, Stephen Rea
How on earth did this movie get made? Who would want to watch a story about some Irish women making a pilgrimage to Lourdes?
Well, I guess plenty of people would, if the movie starred actors like these.
We’re in Dublin in 1967 and the parish church is offering two tickets to Lourdes as the top prize in a talent contest.
I don’t like movies, tv shows or novels that build everything on the outcome of some big competition, but, in this case,
the competition is nicely down-played. (Can you believe Maggie Smith in a luridly ornate dress singing backup to a Kathy Bates’
solo?)There’s a certain amount of flim-flam about the tickets to Lourdes, some swapping going on, but it ends up that
Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates are heading for Lourdes. A younger woman, played by Agnes O’Casey, is going too; she’s
hoping for a cure for her little boy who can’t talk. Their husbands’ strong opposition to the trip doesn’t
faze the women. They’re being joined by Laura Linney who has come back to Ireland for her mother’s funeral, having
left for America forty years ago without returning before this. Need we mention some deep-seated enmity towards her on the
part of the two older Lourdes travellers?
I wouldn’t have thought that many viewers today would want to watch a display of Catholic religiosity bordering on the
superstitious. Do we really want to see elderly bodies wrapped in towels and immersed in chilly bath tubs? For the most part,
though, the piety is portrayed tastefully and it’s relatively understated. The priest who accompanies the travellers
(Mark O’Halloran) is, not surprisingly, a believer but he’s reasonable and understanding. Maybe it helps that
some skepticism about the miraculous qualities of Lourdes arises among the women. What really matters – and you might
know that this is what would make the movie – is that the women have inter-personal issues that they need to resolve.
Which they work on back in their hotel room. There’s nothing particularly intriguing or amazing about what happens there.
The revelations, the confessions, the reconciliations verge on shlock and melodrama. So I’m wondering what made me enjoy
the movie so much. Of course, some of us viewers can’t help being charmed by the many Irish quirks and foibles that
emerge. But the movie’s superlative asset is surely the art of these women actors. Maggie Smith, as a doddering, sly
but kindly old woman, throwing off any lingering hint of actressy elegance and glamour, lets us see an elderly woman just
as she is – much the way Judi Dench did in Belfast. Kathy Bates gives us a woman whose snarky carapace hides a warm
heart. Laura Linney, as a thoughtful woman touched by loss, has one of those faces that a camera can see so much wisdom in.
Agnes O’Casey makes you feel a young woman’s agony when she’s torn between her husband and her child.
The fact that these women could make me enjoy a movie that was essentially so sentimental, so corny is miracle enough for
Beau Is Afraid (Movie) Written and directed by Ari Aster; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Parker
I’m not exactly sure what Beau is afraid of -- other than life, maybe. It certainly gives him a lot to deal with. A
middle-aged guy living in New York, he’s intending to fly out to visit his mother, but a nighttime disturbance in his
apartment building has made him sleep in, so ... he’s rushing to get to his flight, he accidentally locks himself out
of his apartment, he can’t get through to the management to open it for him ... and on it goes, getting worse at every
step. In his anguished struggle to move forward, strangers who start out sympathetic to Beau can turn viciously against him
through no fault of his own.
The spirit of this movie has a lot in common with Everything Everywhere All at Once. Both movies portray a world where nothing
seems to make sense, where things are spinning bizarrely out of control. Except that EEAO has a surrealistic quality, whereas
Beau has a grim reality about it. Another difference between the two movies is that a kind of goofy optimism sustains most
of the characters in EEAO. Not so with Beau. He staggers through the chaos with a hopeless look on his face most of the time.
It would be easy to say that you can’t imagine any actor who could personify this guy as well as Joaquin Phoenix does;
that might be true and it might not. In any case, we’re lucky to have Mr. Phoenix to take us through the nightmare.
There’s some intrinsic quality about him that makes him fascinating on screen. There isn’t much dialogue for the
actor work with. Almost all Beau ever says is: “Sorry ... sorry ... sorry ... Please ... please ... please ... thank
you ... thank you ... thank you!” Not a lot of lines to learn every night before the next day’s shooting. I can
imagine the actor arriving each morning and asking: “Is this the day I have to run naked through the streets of New
York and get stabbed by a lunatic?” Or “Is this the day I’m in my bathtub and a burglar falls on top of
me and we wrestle in the tub?” Or: “Is this the day I’m in a motor boat when the motor explodes and the
What, as a psychiatrist would say, is this all about? Well, I think we can say fairly confidently that Beau has mother issues.
In fact, the opening scene of the movie – shown in blurry, barely discernible close up – seems to have something
to do with a difficult birth. And then we get a scene where a therapist asks Beau if he hates his mother. So Beau’s
excruciating effort to try to get to his mother certainly has some significance. He also seems to have some hangup about sex;
it’s not clear whether he has ever experienced intercourse. Does that have something to do with his parents?
While most of the movie has a disastrous tone, some moments are amusing in a macabre way. In one scene, a UPS delivery man,
who happens to answer the phone at a delivery destination, is forced to deliver some dire news to the caller. There’s
only one serious lag in the story from my point of view. Beau happens on a community of actors living in the woods [don’t
ask!] and they invite him to take part in a play that seems to be something of an allegory of his own life. I found this section
– it takes at least ten minutes – tedious.
The rest of the movie gives a vivid picture of the turmoil of Beau’s life, but does it tell us anything about life in
general? Does it provide any insight that might be helpful to the rest of us? Maybe this: most of our lives aren’t
as bad as they could be.
The Choc-Ice Woman (Short Fiction) by Mary Costello, The New Yorker, October 16, 2023
A woman is riding in a hearse that’s taking her dead brother’s body from a hospital in Dublin back to their home
town. The undertaker is rather surprised that she has chosen to ride with him. It’s a long drive. But maybe it’s
the oddness of the situation that gives Frances’ thoughts such poignancy. She’s thinking about her relationships
with her brothers and her parents. Also her career. She was, perhaps, something of a cliché of a female librarian: gaunt,
stern, seemingly sexless. But she’s thinking mostly about life with her husband. When she first knew him, he was renting
a room in her house. Gradually, she learned that he’d had a troubled childhood, having been an orphan who was sent to
a foster family that treated him badly. He was very handsome, although taciturn, and she fell deeply in love with him. Her
thoughts on the ride in the hearse are mostly about how their marriage evolved.
This story cast a spell around me, put me in a trance. Later, I had to wonder: what was it about the story that was so compelling
(apart from the fine, flawless writing)? It’s thoroughly sad in most ways and unsavoury in some respects. So what was
its appeal? I think it’s the fact that Frances’ thoughts and feelings come through as deeply true and human. What
has happened to her is commonplace in a way and yet you feel her pain as though it was uniquely her own, something no one
else could feel. That’s partly because of an Irish restraint in the telling; everything is under-stated, there’s
no dramatizing, no exaggeration. The matter-of-fact tone lends acuteness to her feelings – leaving you with the feeling
that Frances’ story will linger with you forever.
Spare (Memoir) by Prince Harry, 2023
Why read this book?
Because, on publication, the Guinness World Record certified it as the fastest-selling non-fiction book in the history of
Because you want to contribute to the financial well being of a member of the royal family?
Well, I was curious to see how the ghost writer had handled it. As someone who has done a bit of ghost-writing myself, I wondered
how J.R. Moehringer had organized the material. (His article in the New Yorker, May 15, 2023, about working with Harry was
fascinating.) Had he found a believable, recognizable voice for his subject?
Also, I’m not completely incurious about the private lives of the members of the royal family. Maybe the book would
tell something about what such an unusual life was like from an insider’s point of view. (You should know that I haven’t
seen any of the tv coverage, interviews, programs, about Harry's leaving Britain.)
Still, I wasn’t prepared to buy the book. And there were hundreds of holds on it at the library. So, I was surprised,
one day, to see it offered on the library’s “new and recommended” shelf. I was even more surprised, after
taking it home, to find that I was able to renew it after the initial three-week loan. Maybe Harry’s story isn’t
as gripping as the publishers were hoping?
As for my impressions ... Not long into the book, this hit me: if you’re one of those people who resent royalty, if
you feel their privilege has the effect of diminishing you – and, moreover, – if you see Harry as a spoiled brat,
you’re not going to like this book.
On the other hand, if you see him as someone who was born into a weirdly unique situation, someone confronted with a life
role that almost none of us could handle with equanimity, if you see him as someone who’s trying honestly to negotiate
his way through all the complications (that honesty including some of the self-deception that we’re all prone to), then
this is an interesting and engaging book.
And there’s no question that Mr. Moehringer has captured a tone that gives Harry an authentic, believable voice. Harry
comes off as a friendly, engaging young fellow, with very contemporary sensibilities. (In the acknowledgments, Harry thanks
Mr. Moehringer as his “collaborator” rather than his ghost-writer – a reasonable distinction, I would think,
given that Harry apparently did a lot of the writing himself.) The short chapters give you the feeling that you’re getting
somewhere quickly. Each chapter deals with some major aspect of Harry’s life, then on to another one in the next chapter.
You might say that the overall message of the book, in terms of character portrait, is that Harry’s trying to show us
that, as the old saying goes, he puts his pants on one leg at a time – same as the rest of us. He throws vulgar curse
words around the same as any man his age. He makes no secret about his use of recreational drugs – including psychedelics
– and booze. He talks about dashing through clothing stores to pick up clothes on sale. Often, he’s gulping a
meal while standing over the sink. The only place where he seems unmindful of his advantages, compared to other people, is
where he says that, whenever a bad mood strikes him, he jets off to some favourite place, usually Africa, to try to get over
Harry makes no secret of the fact that he's not an intellectual. The only book he enjoyed reading in school was John Steinbeck's
Of Mice and Men. But he did master a lof technical literature for becoming a helicopter pilot. His military training was more
rigorous than many of us could endure and, through it, he had to stomach some relentless criticism of his faults.
On a happier note, at the birth of his kids, he’s as thrilled as any new dad. He’s candid enough to talk a bit
about his genitals; he tells about the first time he had sex. He even allows a ribald sense of humour to show. On one particularly
gruelling military exercise, he and two companions were dropped off in some no-man’s-land where they had to survive
on their own wits. To stave off the cold, the three of them shared one sleeping bag. That led to lines like: “Sorry,
that your hand?”
One psychological trauma that you can’t deny Harry, one that would affect any of us deeply, was the tragic loss of his
mother when he was a young teen. Then came the many dreams about her returning, plus the fantasies that she hadn’t really
died, that she was sheltering somewhere and she was going to get in touch one of these days. Apart from one sobbing session
at her grave, he wasn’t able to cry about losing her until therapy unlocked that impulse many years later. I don’t
think anybody could dismiss that kind of suffering in someone’s life.
There’s no doubt that the circumstances of his mother’s death have a lot to do with Harry’s battle with
the press, one of the subjects that propels the book forward. (He considers Rupert Murdoch pure evil.) Harry has visited the
Paris tunnel where his mother’s fatal accident occurred and he says her car could never have crashed, given its reported
speed, and even considering the driver’s alcoholic intake, if it weren’t for the relentless pursuit by the paparazzi,
or “the paps,” as he calls them.
Harry seems to feel that the royals are nice people, doing what they can to bring about good in the world. So why does the
press harass them so? (Never mind the many lies and errors they promulgate about the royals.) Having never been outside the
royal family, he doesn’t seem to understand how the rest of the world looks on royalty. Yes, people generally look up
to the royals, respect them and admire them, but there’s also a mystique about royalty, a feeling that there’s
something secret and special about their lives. Hence, the urge to break through that secrecy, to tear the veil asunder, to
see what’s behind it. Any breakthrough of that kind sells papers and brings advertising dollars to tv. Not to mention
the vast sectors of the public who detest the august status of the royals, who crave any information that can knock them off
their pedestals, can show them to be flawed mortals, at least as bad as anyone else, if not worse.
It seems that it was Harry’s inability to understand or to tolerate that dynamic that made it impossible for him and
his wife to remain in Britain. Hence the difficult discussions with his father, his grandmother and his brother about Harry’s
need to step out of the royal spotlight. Prince William’s inability to understand Harry’s problem illustrates
the marked difference between the two brothers. From William, you get the sense that it’s all about duty. Yes, the life
includes some onerous restrictions and responsibilities, but it also has its perks – to put it mildly – so you
suck it up, you play along, you do what you have to do. One might say that’s easier for William, given that he’s
looking forward to being King some day; maybe Harry could have done it too if he were next in line to the throne. But he’s
not and his character is not the submissive kind; he’s more like a typical member of his generation – fired up
with the urge to do his own thing, find his own way in life.
Harry talks a bit about the meaning of royalty, of its relevance to life in Britain, about the costs of it and the financial
benefits it produces for the Kingdom. He doesn’t come up with any startling conclusions about any of that but give him
credit for not assuming that the monarchy is some inevitable and irrefutable result of divine fiat. I’ve read somewhere
that some critic said that this book could bring down the monarchy. I don’t think it will. But there was one courtier
– I think it was one of George VI’s secretaries – who said you should never let too much light shine into
the royals’ lives; there had to be some secrecy about them, otherwise you would run the risk of diminishing the mystique
around royalty. Maybe that’s what this book has done. Maybe people– at least those who have been fascinated by
royalty – will never look on the royals again with the same awe. We’ll see them as ordinary people who have, by
an accident of birth, been selected to fulfill a special role in society and we will admire them to the extent that they do
it well – like any head of state. But we won’t feel that being royal involves any storybook charm.
Is Harry the kind of writer, the kind of thinker, whose ideas we would read if he didn’t have such an extraordinary
life? Not at all. But he does have that extraordinary life, so it’s worth reading about.
The Listeners (Novel) by Jordan Tannahill, 2021
Claire, a wife, and a mother of a teen-age daughter, is a high school English teacher. Her life is cruising along smoothly
except for a persistent hum that she’s hearing. She’s unable to identify the source of it and none of her family
members or friends can hear it. Eventually, though, one of her students tells her that he can hear it. They find out about
a group of people who hear it and who are meeting secretly to share their experience. Some supposed scientific explanations
of the hum are offered but they don’t convince most of the members of the group. Gradually the group members develop
a semi-mystical bond; some weird psychic stuff begins to happen among them. Meanwhile, Claire’s life is imploding both
professionally and domestically.
I liked a lot about this book. As our first-person narrator, Claire is intelligent, likeable, friendly, worth paying attention
to. The everyday, mundane situations are conveyed realistically – Claire at home, at school, chatting with her colleagues,
her family, her friends. We can identify with the quotidianness of it all. The characterizations are vivid and credible –
especially those of Claire’s husband and daughter. The dialogue is snappy and attention-getting. You can tell that Mr.
Tannahill is a playwright. (Two of his plays have won a Governor General’s Literary Award for best drama.) I did, however,
find that some of the group meetings went on too long. They included the kinds of conflict and repartee that can keep you
spellbound in the theatre but the reading wears a bit thin after 40 pages of it, uninterrupted.
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get on board with all that fuss about the hum. Maybe I’m just not the kind
of reader this book is intended for. I shy away from any element of sci-fi, fantasy or surrealism in my reading. I tried to
appreciate that the hum could be taken as the sort of inexplicable mystery that any of us might experience. After all, as
some of the group members contend, not everything can be explained by science or by reason. So maybe the hum is a symbol of
something? I tried that take on the story but it never really clicked for me.
But the story builds to a conflagration that any dramatist would be proud to have ignited.
Instructions for the Drowning (Stories) by Steven Heighton, 2023
When you’re reading short stories by an author who is new to you – as this one is to me – you keep trying
to catch the voice of the author. You want to know: who is this person and what sorts of things does he or she know about?
We know that Alice Munro writes about the interpersonal goings-on in small town Ontario, John Updike writes about the problems
of US east coast sophisticates, Raymond Carver writes about the tribulations of working class people.
As far as the stories go in Instructions for the Drowning, Steven Heighton doesn’t have any such specialty. He’s
all over the lot. One story tells about a man who is helping to bury corpses of refugees who have drowned. In another story,
a young couple who are expecting their first child get snarled up in an attempt to return a wallet that they’ve found.
A plastic surgeon, the first-person narrator of one story, is thinking about how he’d like to fix the damage that a
stroke caused to his wife’s face. There’s the scenario where a boy’s Greek father takes him out on winter
hikes when the boy would rather be playing video games. When a man is testing a car for that’s for sale, his daughter,
from the back seat, notices what appears to be a man’s body on the deck behind a house. One story focuses on the suicidal
thoughts of doctor who has treated soldiers suffering from PTSD. The final story in the book follows the fate of the university
student who was blamed for delivering the punch that may have contributed to the death of Harry Houdini, the famous magician.
It’s not easy, then, to pinpoint Mr. Heighton’s voice exactly, to identify his specialty. Which is not to say
that the stories aren’t interesting. They move, for the most part, at a slow pace but they’re thoughtful. You
may not race through them with eager curiosity but you find yourself pondering them later. The story about the daughter spotting
the man’s body on the back deck reflects on the strange fact that life goes on all day long for most of us in the ordinary
ways while somebody may be experiencing terrible tragedy. One of my favourites among the stories is one about a gay man who
wants to have his partner’s ashes buried in the family plot where he himself will one day be buried. This prospect meets
with stubborn resistance from the surviving partner’s father. Both points of view are sympathetically conveyed. You
can understand the son’s urge and you can also understand the father’s inability to yield. What’s important
isn’t so much the outcome of their debate but the way the son and the father struggle to show their love for each other.
If you’re looking for literary flourishes as proof of an author’s worth, you’ll find them here – as
in this impression of a man walking with two canes: “... his quick four-legged gait made me think of one of those insects,
water-striders, skittering over a pond.” For profundity, there’s this: “In matters of the heart the outsider
is always wrong.”
Several of the stories don’t exactly fit into the pattern that we expect in short fiction, though. Some consist of a
relatively long section of text that describes some incident, then a much shorter piece that seems barely to have any connection
with the preceding text but is apparently meant to shed some light on it. The story about the man helping to bury corpses
of drowned refugees feels, to a large extent, like a journalist’s report of a scene that he visited, but the piece does
end with a point that has an artistic meaning. At times the situations are so odd that you feel that the author isn’t
so much creating fictional characters as he is telling us about things that he experienced. The story about the young man
who delivered the fatal blow to Houdini goes on for 30 some pages in the voice of a third-person narrator but on the third
last page of the story, the author inserts himself into the piece with some first-person narration.
So maybe the stories don’t exactly fit into the genre of short fiction as we know it best. If we can’t say exactly
what Mr. Heighton’s speciality is, let’s say that he’s fascinated by all different kinds of people, he likes
to think about their lives, to find meaning in some of the moments they experience. Maybe these pieces could be appreciated
best, not so much as stories, but as “writings” that Mr. Leighton left behind. (He died of cancer at the age of
60 in 2022,)
No One Left to Come Looking for You (Novel) by Sam Lipsyte, 2022
The name on the cover of this book prompted the thought that I’d seen some excellent fiction by this writer in the New
Yorker. Didn’t Sam Lipsyte have a unique style? Wasn’t there something special about his voice? Didn’t he
talk about things, describe settings, scenarios, that wouldn’t occur to other authors?
Yes, to all of the above. What this novel particularly impressed on me is the importance of narrative voice. Sometimes a narrator’s
voice is so entertaining, so engaging, that you feel you could follow this narrator anywhere he or she wants to take you.
This is one of those books.
Our narrator here is Jack Shit; he plays bass in a band called The Shits. He’s in his 20s. It’s the early nineties
and Bill Clinton has taken up residence in the White House. Jack, leading a somewhat scuzzy, shoestring existence in Manhattan’s
East Village, has a lot of problems but his main one, on the book’s opening, is that Earl, his roommate – the
lead singer in their band – has disappeared with Jack’s Fender Jazz Bass. In all likelihood, Earl is going to
sell the instrument for drugs. The band – always desperate for work – has a gig coming up. How are they going
to do it without Jack’s bass?
Jack glances around their digs to see if anything else is missing. Looks like it’s all there: milk crates full of records
and books, full ashtrays, empty bottles, a few chipped dishes. Later, Jack is standing in his boxers, sweating and frying
some eggs that are hissing like the radiator. He allows that there aren’t a lot of amenities in this residence, “
... unless you’ve always wanted your shower in the kitchen and find the company of cockroaches – our exoskeletal
courtiers, as Earl calls them – oddly calming.”
Jack, as you may have intuited, has a mordantly fatalistic attitude to his iffy circumstances. And yet there’s an ingenuous
optimism about him. He has a college degree (English Lit, I think, but I’m not sure) and he’s capable of notable
insight, for instance, this thought about one of his pursuits: “By the time you find what you’ve been seeking,
you’re a different seeker.” Facing the threat of immanent death at a crucial moment, he looks back on himself
as the kid who “came to this mighty city to live, to love, to nourish his brethren with cascades of noise, to revel
in sweat-ecstasies [sic] of sonic communion.” Whether you’re into his kind of music or not, you can’t deny
him his dream. Mind you, some readers might quail at some of the earthy detail that Jack imparts, for instance, his crude
descriptions of basic functions of the male body.
The quest to retrieve his bass takes Jack to visit friends and other musicians, an old girlfriend and a new one. He arrives
at one former band mate’s apartment to find him dying, his murderer just departing via the fire escape. A visit to his
parents in the suburbs – to retrieve an old guitar – shows them to be (surprisingly) sane, kind and loving. But
while Jack’s there for dinner, his aunt’s boyfriend, a writer with a niche reputation for literary novels, delivers
a tirade about how civilization is imploding. (That dinner at his parents’ house offers an in-joke. Jack’s aunt
and boyfriend are watching a re-run of an old talk show on which the host is one Robert Lipsyte – who, in real life,
was a tv host and the author’s father.) Jack keeps encountering a detective who, in a hard-nosed way, swings back and
forth from friendly to hostile. When Jack and the cop are on better terms, their dialogue consists of competitive forays of
lingo from tv cop shows. The most hilarious scene in the book is Jack’s reminiscence about one time when a drug binge
brought on paroxysms of guilt that made him report to the local precinct where a bewildered desk sergeant hears Jack’s
confession to crimes like ignoring his girlfriend and stealing another kid’s Chewbacca figurine in middle school.
Much as I enjoyed Jack’s narration, the end of the book lagged a bit for me. Maybe that’s partly because there
was so much talk about rock music, comparisons of different bands, different rock musicians – subjects I know nothing
about. But it was a change in tone that bothered me more. The attempt to resolve the question of the missing bass, the murder
of the friend, and Earl’s disappearance brought on dust-ups with goons working for a certain New Yorker who was making
a name for himself. This blonde-haired, would-be celeb, whose name was emblazoned on a major Manhattan skyscraper, seemed
to have Presidential ambitions. The ensuing violence and chicanery took us out of the world of Jack’s mundane struggles
and threw us into something more like a murder mysery/thriller. As everything was building to a climax, the plot lines seemed
a bit forced, the connections somewhat strained.
In the end, though, it was good to know that Jack was still the same guy. Trudging home on the last page, he says: “The
universe, I suppose, has a million, billion, trillion stars. In the night sky of New York city, you’re lucky to see
two or three. Still maybe it’s enough to know the rest are out there somewhere, twinkling for somebody, burning down
Somebody’s Fool (Novel) by Richard Russo, 2023
I enjoyed Richard Russo’s 2019 novel Chances Are [reviewed on Dilettante's Diary page dated Nov 10/19]. It was a deeply
felt, nostalgic reverie involving three guys who gathered at a cottage to re-kindle their friendships from college years.
Hanging over their gathering was the mystery about a young woman who’d been part of their circle back then but who had
No wistful musing in Somebody’s Fool. North Bath, a small town in northern New York state is being merged into the larger
nearby town Schuyler Springs. This is causing chaos for many citizens of Bath. Civic departments will be dismantled, jobs
will be lost. Everybody’s in some sort of turmoil. The tone is gossipy, chatty, talkative as the third-person narrator
dishes the dirt in a context that feels something like a soap opera. Events dealt with here are so multifarious that it’s
hard to believe that the whole novel takes place in just three days.
If you’ve read Mr. Russo’s previous books featuring these people, or seen the movies based on the books, some
of the characters in Somebody’s Fool will be familiar to you and you’ll known their backstories. But a reader
less familiar with all that longs for a chart at the front of the book that explains the connections and relationships: the
ancestors, the marriages, the progeny, the lovers, the step parents, the aunts, uncles and cousins.
But let’s focus on just a few of the main characters. Donald Sullivan, known by everybody as “Sully,” looms
large, although he’s been dead for ten years. He was a huge presence in town. Not exactly the most devoted father or
husband, he somehow managed in his free-wheeling way to create an impression of benevolence and generosity. His son, Peter,
now takes the stage as one of the main actors in Somebody’s Fool. Peter had a good career teaching college level English
Lit in New York City but that fell through for various reasons. Now he’s teaching part time in a college in Schuyler
Springs. Meanwhile, he’s renovating a house in Bath that he inherited from Sully and wondering if this sort of practical
work wouldn’t suit him better. His son, Will, whom he raised after leaving the boy’s mother in West Virginia,
is a scholar, studying in England.
The man who anchors the other main narrative thread in the book is Doug Raymer. He has just resigned as the chief of the Bath
police force that is being merged with the Schuyler Springs police. He too has a very large presence in town. His erstwhile
girlfriend (they’re taking a break from each other for a while), Charice, is a cop who was working under his supervision.
Now, with his recommendation, she has become the new police chief of Schuyler Springs. In that she’s their first African
American police chief, there’s some question about how well she’ll be received by the largely white police force.
Her twin brother, Jerome, has also been a cop but he’s now drifting through some kind of hiatus in his life.
To give some idea of the complications these people get into, I’ll reveal that Jerome was having an affair with Raymer's
wife before she died. And Peter, after he’s been having sex with a woman in the downstairs apartment of the house he
inherited from Sully, goes upstairs and finds the woman’s ex-husband who insists that she still loves him and is going
to come back to him. Nothing for it, but the two men have to sit down and have a friendly chat about the situation.
But it’s not the salacious details, the shocking situations, that make the book so rich and satisfying. It’s Mr.
Russo’s gift for conveying characters so vividly and fully. In that respect, you might almost say he’s a 21st
century Dickens, without the sentimentality or the exaggeration of his 19th century predecessor. Every character who comes
along, no matter how small his or her role, leaps off the page with striking individuality.
One of the most remarkable is that ex-husband whom Peter found upstairs in his house. He sponges on everybody, imposes on
others constantly, takes advantage of everybody and assumes absolute rights to what he wants. He has no self-doubts, no qualms
whatever about status in the community; he’s supremely confident of his place at the centre of things. And yet you don’t
hate him. Maybe that’s because there’s an amusing Falstaffian quality about his lack of scruples.
Another fascinating character is Jerome, Charice’s brother. At first, he seems to be an insufferable neurotic, not least
of his quirks being his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He used to be a very flashy dresser but he dresses down now because,
he claims, he was too much of a “target” for white women who tended to fall in love with him. You wonder if this
guy can be for real. And yet, he engages Raymer in some profound attempts to explain what life is really like for a black
person in a white society.
Not that Raymer doesn’t have his own quirks – such as an inner persona that he addresses as “Dougie.”
This guy, being the more acerbic, cynical, side of Raymer, is always urging him to be more skeptical, not to be so trusting,
not to be deluded into thinking all will be well. Meanwhile, Raymer has been seeing a psychotherapist for several years. The
rapport between the two of them seems comfortable and congenial, the therapist seems to feel that she’s getting good
results, but Raymer can’t help lying to her about almost everything. Whenever she asks about his thoughts or feelings,
he tries to give her the answers she wants, no matter how untrue they are, even though he knows full well that that’s
no way to benefit from therapy.
One of the most striking aspects of Mr. Russo’s handling of these characters is that he conveys their thoughts at great
length. For example, when Peter hears the intruder upstairs, he goes through two pages of speculating on the intruder’s
possible identity before he makes a move. In another instance, when a phone rings, somebody goes through nearly a full page
of thinking about who the caller might be before answering the phone. These long reveries may seem implausible but I’m
willing to cut Mr. Russo some slack on this point. People’s brains often do cycle through a lot of ideas in a matter
of a few seconds, while reading them in print can take a lot longer.
The affairs of these people are so complex that they keep the book moving without any need of extraordinary prompting, but
Mr. Russo does provide a bit of extra drama – and mystery – around the body of a man who has apparently hanged
himself in the ballroom of an abandoned hotel. The body is so decomposed that it’s impossible to identify the man by
appearance and no trace of his identity can be found on or around him. Although Raymer’s retired, helping Charice to
solve this mystery becomes one of the things that occupies him throughout the book. And Charice’s new role as police
chief brings her into conflict with a cop who’s brutal, racist, sexist, lying and corrupt. The scenes with this man
are chilling in their depiction of his sly, vicious mishandling of people. A reader begins to wonder if it would ever be possible
to trust a cop again.
As for the other characters, towards the end of the book, I was beginning to worry that the author was going to solve everybody’s
problems, that they were all going to see the error of their ways, that they were determined to start afresh on a better way
of life. It wouldn’t be fair to the author for me to say whether or not things do turn out that way. But I will say
that, in winding up their affairs, Mr. Russo has them raising very important questions about how we live today.
Homelands (History) by Timothy Garton Ash, 2023
I ordered this book because I remembered seeing opinion pieces by Timothy Garton Ash in the Globe and Mail. His articles gave
me an impression of a learned man who knew a lot about world affairs and who had wise things to say about them. He’s
professor of European Studies at Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, as well as being
a regular contributor to publications like The Guardian.
But what makes the book compelling isn’t so much his academic erudition as his personal connection to the history that
he discusses. Although British born, he has felt himself an ardent European all along. From the age of 18, he visited Europe
at least once every year (until Covid). He campaigned door-to-door for the Remain side in the Brexit referendum; the result
made him feel like he had lost his citizenship. Nostalgically watching a video of the opening of the 2012 London Olympics
brought tears to his eyes because so many of the attributes of that wonderful Britain were no more.
It’s unusual to get a historian who, besides giving an astute analysis of what’s been happening, can tell you
what Margaret Thatcher said during a meeting with him or what he told George W. Bush when he was summoned to the White House
for a consultation. Or how Pope John Paul II responded to some provocation during a dinner that Professor Ash attended. One
of the politicians he was most involved with was Vaclav Havel, the first president of the free Czech Republic. Clearly, the
two men became good friends. But the politician Professor Ash worked most closely with was Tony Blair, former PM of Britian.
Not only did they meet often for consultations, but Professor Ash helped write some of Mr. Blair’s speeches.
As engaging as the book is, it's more an analysis of what happened than a presentation of the facts. I often had the feeling
that the writer was assuming that his readers knew pretty well what happened in certain countries at certain times. For example,
when it came to the strife in the Balkans, with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Professor Ash’s comments didn’t
give me a clear picture of just what happened. (For that, I had to go to Tony Judt’s Postwar – a book that Professor
Ash cites magnanimously.) However, considerable help is given by the end maps in the book. One shows Europe during the Cold
War and the other shows Europe during the War in Ukraine.
Occasionally, I found the professor’s prose a bit clotted. For instance: “When Russian operatives poisoned a former
Russian spy and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English cathedral town of Salisbury in 2018, a British woman
called Dawn Sturgess died and a British police sergeant, Nick Bailey, suffered life-changing health damage after both came
into accidental contact with the poison.”
Professor Ash makes some gratifying references to Canada, saying that our way of handling the immigration of refugees has
been exemplary. He even says Canada would make an ideal member of the European Union! As for the tide of refugees swarming
across the world now, he says countries have to find legal, satisfactory ways of admitting refugees; otherwise, the flood
of illegal immigrants will fire the rage of nationalist populists. On the whole, he looks at the world situation today with
“constructive pessimism:” history tells us that things often turn out badly but we have to keep trying to do better.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store (Novel) by James McBride, 2023
In 1972, workers digging a foundation for a housing development in a small town in Pennsylvania find a human skeleton. Whose
is it? That question takes us back to the 1930s when a young Jewish couple run a grocery store and a couple of theatres in
the town. What sets them apart from every other business is that they cater to African Americans. That riles a lot of townspeople.
The Jewish husband keeps trying to persuade his wife to move their home to the more prosperous part of town where most of
the Jews live, but she won’t have any of that. She’s perfectly content living over the grocery store and she enjoys
meeting the needs of the Black community who are so friendly with her.
So much for the first couple of chapters of this saga. I couldn’t get any further, mainly because of the style of the
writing. Our third-person narrator sounds like somebody too much in love with his own voice. He seems to think that good narration
involves spinning a story on and on almost endlessly, as if there is something magical about the sound of the story-teller’s
voice. You get the feeling, not so much that you’re experiencing events happening right in front of you but, rather,
that you’re hearing somebody telling you about them, offering his own interpretations and understandings. It’s
all very drawn out, very leisurely, very voluble: stories about people’s pasts, rumours, gossip, calamities, local history
and so on. When the young Jewish wife gets sick with some mysterious ailment, we’re told over and over that doctors
are unable to do anything for her.
There’s a folksy feeling to it all, as if the narrator is saying: come on, people, you gotta love this! I didn’t.
And yet I did very much enjoy The Good Lord Bird, Mr. McBride’s account of the life of the famous abolitionist John
Brown. Maybe that’s because the narrator was so engaging: a boy whom John Brown had taken under his wing. That plucky
kid’s perspective on the early days of the U.S. Civil war was fascinating.
Saving Time (Sociology, Culture) by Jenny Odell, 2023
This is a lament about the ways people are monetizing our time, thus stealing our most valuable resource. The book reflects
on various concepts of time and how people have responded to them. The clock, Ms. Odell points out, was invented as a conduit
to profit. I’m sympathetic to the author’s theme, but the writing is prosaic and ponderous. Ms. Odell spins thought
after thought, without any consideration of pace or liveliness. As in her previous book, the pages are sprinkled with references
to other writers, other works, overwhelmingly so. I would probably benefit from “taking the time” to read this,
but it’s long and dense – 289 pages – and I have other things to read that would be more enjoyable.
Above Ground (Poems) by Clint Smith, 2023
I don’t know what motivated me to order this book from the library. Perhaps some review mentioned that it was about
the tenderness that a young father feels towards his little children. I probably thought it would be interesting to see how
a young man today expresses that.
And that is, indeed, what the book is mostly about. Almost all the poems are about the poet’s delight in his son and
daughter, his fascination with the way they’re discovering the world, the beguiling things they say and do. I tend to
think that the best poetry should include metaphors and figures of speech that hint at what’s not being said outright,
whereas the meanings of these poems seem to be quite obvious: a dad’s love for his kids. However, the poet mentions
frightening medical complications in both pregnancies, so perhaps you could view the hidden message of the poems as a celebration
of life that blossoms in spite of staggering odds.
Still, a small sampling of these poems would have provided more than enough sweetness for me. Maybe I’m the kind of
man who can’t take all that much of another man’s drooling over the cuteness of his kids. That could be why one
of the poems that interested me most was the “Ode to Those First Fifteen Minutes After the Kids Are Finally Asleep.”
The title sets the stage and the poem goes on to praise the beloved couch that welcomes the dad’s weary body, the knees
that are sore after crawling around on the floor, the toys scattered everywhere and “the silence, oh the silence, how
it washes over you like a warm bedsheet.”
However some of the poems do have more bite, more in the way of imagery and metaphor, with something of a thought-provoking
social message. There’s the one where the poet is standing in line at the store and the woman in front of him is ranting
about athletes who kneel on one knee instead of standing for the national anthem. Such “disrespect” makes her
feel that they should go to some other country. But then she turns around and coos over the poet’s baby boy, claiming
that he’s the most beautiful baby she has ever seen. But the poet thinks: one day this boy will be a Black man and will
this woman be so benevolent towards him then? And there’s a poem where the poet notes that everybody praises him for
taking such good care of his children: changing their diapers, feeding them and all that. And yet, he wonders, would his wife
get such praise for doing these things?
One very moving and thoughtful poem reflects on a tv commentator’s referring to the deaths of civilians as “collateral”
damage of a bombing. The poet isn’t condemning the tv person for using that term; the poet understands that the situation
is complex and difficult to reduce to simple equations. This leads him to think about his own complicity. “Who among
us has not used spare change/ to cover our contrition?” he asks. “Or laid a wreath of sympathy/atop bodies with
names we do not know?” In “Lines in the Sand” he thinks about refugees in a boat that capsized because it
was carrying too many and why, on the other hand, someone gave him a passport, with the result that “I was born onto
a sheet of paper and became a citizen of a lie.”
Some of the poems simply explore the delightful ambiguities of language. The poet’s mother-in-law speaks Igbo, a language
in which a word – which has only one form in writing – can have different meanings, depending on how you pronounce
it. For instance, the Igbo word n’anya means sight and it also means love. When you encounter that word in a certain
written sentence then, you don’t whether the woman saying “I cannot remember the sight of my village” or
“I cannot remember the love of my village”? In another written sentence, is she saying “My greatest joy
is the sight of my grandchild” or “My greatest joy is the love of my grandchild’?