Dilettante's Diary

Nov 11/09

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear near the top of the page; older reviews will move further down the page.

Reviewed here: An Education (Movie); Bright Star (Movie); What Paul Meant (Scripture Study); The Lincoln Lawyer (Mystery)

An Education (Movie) written by Nick Hornby, based on the book by Lynn Barber; directed by Lone Scherfig; starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams; with Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Emma Thompson.

This movie plunges you into 1960s life in Twickenham, a suburb of London, where you meet people so real you feel like you’re discovering long lost cousins.

First, there’s Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen-year-old student in a private girls’ school. Everybody has great expectations of her going to Oxford, if only she can bump up her Latin marks a little. A bright, precocious girl, she hangs out with her pals, sneaking illicit smokes and fantasizing about living in Paris and wearing black and listening to jazz all the time. While Ms Mulligan may be slightly too mature for the role, she makes her character’s thirst for adventure in the world at large totally believable.

Then, there are her parents. Dad (Alfred Molina) is one of those blowhards who’s always laying down the law. He can be a bit of a pain at times but it’s almost worth putting up with the discomfort for the sake of his virtuoso rants. One, in particular, about the improbability of "money trees" growing in the garden will surely find its place in anthologies of audition pieces for middle-aged men. Like many such ogres, of course, this one turns out to have a very soft side and Mr. Molina does a marvellous job of showing us how this guy can melt if just the right kind of heat is applied.

As his wife, Cara Seymour has the look of a woman whose beauty has been worn away through years of worry and stress. Somehow, though, Ms Seymour manages to offer glimpses of the younger soul who still hopes for a glimmer of joy now and then.

And we mustn’t fail to mention Graham (Matthew Beard), a would-be boyfriend of Jenny’s. At a tea party with Jenny’s family, this essentially nice but somewhat nerdy fellow happens to mention that he might take a year off school to travel after graduation. Jenny’s dad spontaneously combusts at the suspicion that Graham might be – gasp! – "a Teddy Boy!!!" How amusing to be reminded of such innocuous threats to middle-class propriety in pre-Beatles Britain.

Into this cozy milieu comes David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who takes a shine to young Jenny. Before a few scenes have elapsed, he’s introducing her to the nightclub world that she dreamed of. It’s fascinating to watch how this charmer winds Jenny’s parents around his little finger. He always has just the right word, the facial expression, the sigh or the exclamation to make their objections evaporate.

One show of David’s magic touch comes when he suggests to Jenny that they grab a spot of supper after a Friday night concert. Jenny is so inexperienced in the ways of the world that she objects, on the grounds that she will already have eaten supper at home that night. With the utmost charm and delicacy, he explains that, maybe if she wanted to join him and his friends for a bit of dinner later in the evening, then the thing to do would be to not eat dinner at home earlier.

Permission for these outings comes readily from Jenny’s parents when David assures them that his Aunt Helen will be chaperoning them. Aunt Helen (Rosamund Pike) turns out to be the twenty-something girlfriend of one of his best pals (Dominic Cooper). Although Helen must surely be the 1960s equivalent of an airhead, you can’t help but admire her determination to keep the good times rolling. When Jenny says that she plans to "read English" at Oxford, Helen responds, "You mean books?" Helen gets a lot more bang from magazines.

At first, it was a little hard to see Peter Sarsgaard as a member of this crowd. Perhaps because we somehow think of him as a quintessential American actor, his Brit accent took a couple of scenes of getting used to. No question, though, about his mastery at playing enigmatic, multi-faceted characters. In this case, his dark side begins to emerge as small troubles crop up. Bigger ones soon follow.

Ultimately, the story of Jenny and David turns out to be a pretty conventional morality tale. On the question of  affairs like theirs, the movie doesn’t turn out to be as original and insightful as the first hour made you think it was going to be. My rating for the movie thus fell a notch or two.

But questions raised about education did engage my mind. When Jenny’s teachers begin to suspect that she is ruining her life with glamourous partying, they mount a full scale attack to protect her prospects of going to Oxford. This causes Jenny to ask some pointed questions of her teachers. What’s the use of all their university learning if it leads to teaching boring subjects in a school for pampered girls?

Enter Emma Thompson as a Margaret-Thatcher-type headmistress, helmet hairdo and all: the kind of woman who can dispense withering venom with velvety aplomb that reveals not the slightest hint of emotion. In fact, Ms. Thompson’s first words of admonition are addressed to paper work on her desk. She doesn’t bother to look up at Jenny until well into her speech.

Is the performance hilarious because the writer meant it to be or because the part's being played by Emma Thompson? Mostly the latter, I think. What surely helps to make it so enjoyable is the suspicion that Ms Thompson herself must be having a ball sending up a certain type of British woman. She should be careful, though, about the kinds of roles she takes on. If she doesn’t watch it, she could  become a favourite subject for parody by drag artists.

A somewhat different type of educator is played by Olivia Williams. Her Miss Stubbs shares some of the authoritarian rigidity and the scornful attitude that Ms. Thompson’s character has established as the ruling ambiance for the school. But Miss Stubbs has depths we never see in the headmistress. Miss Stubbs, while admittedly spinsterish and, therefore, somewhat ridiculous in the eyes of the girls, possesses a dignity and integrity that we viewers can’t help but recognize.

It’s largely – and unexpectedly – through this woman that Jenny gets the answers to her important questions. I’m not sure, though, that the point about the purpose of education comes through all that clearly to the rest of us. Maybe it doesn’t need to. Maybe the movie has done its job by making us come up with our own answers.

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


Bright Star (Movie) written and directed by Jane Campion; starring Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider, Edie Martin; with Thomas Sangster, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Samuel Barnett

Before reading this review, you need to know something about my attitude to the subject and the film-maker.

In the 1960s, while hitch-hiking through Europe on two dollars a day, I made a pilgrimage through the very hot streets of Rome to John Keats’ burial place in the Protestant cemetery. It was hard to find but, weary and famished, I plodded on, determined to have a moment to wallow in melancholy at that grave with the pathetic epitaph which the deceased had dictated: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." That’s how much the guy meant to me, a fellow Romantic in those days.

About the film-maker Jane Campion my feelings have not been so congenial. Ever since suffering through the artsy fatuities, the woolly thinking and the pretensions of The Piano, I have felt about as eager to catch another Jane Campion film as I would be to catch the H1N1 virus.

So you can imagine with what trepidation I approached a film by Ms. Campion about my beloved John Keats.

At the opening of Bright Star, it looked like my worst fears would be confirmed. While watching close-ups of a needle and thread passing through fabric, we were treated to a piece for two voices that had a vaguely baroque-sound but with a New-Ageish spin. Oh dear, I thought, we’re in for more arch nonsense. Thankfully, that was the worst moment of the movie. To my great relief, the film carried on to provide plenty of viewing interest, even if it didn’t offer any startling new insights into life and love.

Among various incidental pleasures, for instance, one enthralling scene showed a group of men at a house party, sitting around and singing wordlessly in a way that seemed intended to mimic the effect of an orchestra. Many contemplative moments featured Vermeer-inspired shots of women sitting by windows, engaged in domestic activities or simply watching something outside. And I liked the editing of the film. Scenes frequently overlapped, the sound track for a new scene starting before you thought the previous scene was ready to end. That helped to keep things moving, with the occasional fade to black for catching one’s breath.

At times you feel you’re watching another of those films of a Jane Austen novel – which isn’t inappropriate, given that the last years of Keats’ life took place in that time period. The very tight and narrow – almost claustrophobic – focus of the film is on the relationship between Keats and Fanny Brawne. You find out very little about his past and his life in the world at large, although references to the critical reception (mostly unfavourable) of his poetry do come up. Almost all the movie takes place in the homes that Keats, Ms Brawne and their circle inhabited.

Wherein lies a problem. It can be quite difficult to identify the various family members and hangers-on. It seems that Keats and his friend, a Mr. Charles Brown, are living in a house that Fanny once lived in. On finding out that Keats is sleeping in what was her bed, she instructs him to look for some artwork she did on the wall beside the bed. Later, Fanny and her family move into what appears to be a semi-detached house, the other half occupied temporarily by Keats and Mr. Browne. But this semi seems to offer free access from one side to the other. And who is this Mr. Brown? Obviously a great friend of Keats, he seems also to be a sort of protector. Apparently, they are working on some writing project, perhaps a play. Did Keats undertake such collaboration? And who is that middle-aged woman in Fanny’s household other than her mother? Some relation of her mother’s?

It feels as though you’re supposed to know most of this biographical stuff, as though it isn’t necessary for the film to spell it out for us. Eventually, most of it comes clear but you waste a lot of time and attention trying to figure out the relationships and the arrangements.

No question, though, about the central relationship in the movie. It’s clear to us early on what’s happening between Keats and Fanny – even if it’s not clear to them. Both of them approach the matter with a certain hesitancy and awkwardness. Neither seems very experienced in the ways of love. That may seem surprising, given the passion in Keats’ poetry, but who ever said a poet had to experience any actual physical passion in order to write about love passionately? Besides, Keats is only in his early twenties and he can hardly be expected to have wracked up a lot of bedroom experience. We’re not dealing with Cherubino here. On the subject sexual conquests, in fact, Keats expresses astonishment at his friend Brown’s knack for taking whatever he wants. At the point where it seems that Keats himself may get a bit of action in that department, he declines, pointing out that he has a conscience after all.

The major conflict keeping the lovers apart is the fact of Keats’ poverty, a condition that made marriage impossible. Fascinating as the situation may be, you couldn’t say that a lot of chemistry between the two lovers comes across on screen. That, I think, may be due to the casting of Abbie Cornish in the role of Fanny. This Fanny seems too substantial, too stubborn, too independent and strong-willed. Her manner is diffident and chippy much of the time. This may not be Ms Cornish’s fault, but it’s never very clear whether the character actually likes poetry much. She appears to be uneducated but intelligent. The one distinction she can claim is her skill as a dressmaker. However, the clothes she creates for herself, by emphasizing her bulkiness, do nothing to make her more appealing. It’s clear that this is one stylist who’s stranded in the backwaters of fashion, with no help whatever from Hollywood designers.

After a while, though, you begin to wonder if you aren’t faulting her merely for not matching your preconception of a romantic heroine. Does Keats’ love interest necessarily need to have the wistful, ephemeral quality that we associate with him? Maybe not. Still, you never feel much of what might have attracted him to her.

Whether or not Ben Whishaw is anything like Keats, I don’t know. It seems a bit unlikely to me, though, that Keats would have exuded an aura something like a sexy – if diminutive – rock star. One generally thinks of Keats as being somewhat wan and self-effacing; at least that’s the image conveyed in the few pictures we have of him. But Mr. Whishaw’s charisma makes for interesting watching.

I didn’t however, buy the business of Keats and Fanny reciting long swatches of his poems to each other. It strikes me as plausible that someone might come up to a poet and recite some of the poet’s lines to show a familiarity with the poet’s work. But surely a true poet wouldn’t recite his or her lines back to a lover. Not that I think a poet couldn’t be so egotistical. It’s more a question of professionalism. The real writer leaves the work on the desk. He or she doesn’t trot it out for conversational flaunting.

Even though it was hard to figure out how Mr. Brown fit into the story of Keats’ life, the actor playing the part won me over completely. A burly, ebullient Scotsman in ridiculous plaid outfits, he seemed both sarcastic and affectionate, bullying and comical. The actor reminded me of the young American, Paul Schneider, who is one of my favourite actors – if not a big name – in the roles of very contemporary males. But this actor was much heavier than Paul Schneider. Besides, the actor’s Scots burr was unmistakably authentic and the role was very different from a Paul Schneider type. Imagine my astonishment, then, on discovering in the credits, that it was Paul Schneider in the role. Now, he rises a couple of notches further in my estimation. (But please tell me he was wearing a what actors call a "fat suit!")

Among other actors, Edie Martin in the role of Toots, Fanny’s little sister was irresistible. The occasional glimpse of the affair through the eyes of this beguiling youngster offered an alternative take on the proceedings. I found Kerry Fox, as Fanny’s mother, rather too contemporary in her style. The scenes of her alone with Fanny conveyed a female bonding in a spirit more typical of the 21st century. On the other hand, maybe Ms Campion was trying to suggest that women back in the day had ways of relating that we don’t usually get in the typical novels and films about the period. Fair enough.

But I would have skipped the carpet-chewing scene where Fanny’s mom has to comfort her after Keats’ death. Far too cringe-making. Since Keats’ death is one detail about his life that we all know, I think it would have been better to end the movie on a suspended note, reaching for an ironic contrast between the pathos of his fading away and the refulgence of his poetic legacy. I’m not sure how a film would accomplish that, but something in that line would have been more satisfying to that young guy bowed with sadness at the grave of him whose name was "writ in water".

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")


What Paul Meant (Scripture Study) by Garry Wills, 2006

It’s not often that you can describe a book of scripture study as exciting. What makes this book worthy of that label is the fact that Garry Wills figures Paul has had a bum rap in a major way. Mr Wills’ passion to do right by Paul makes for compelling reading.

One of Mr Wills’ key points is that we get a much better idea of Jesus from Paul’s letters than from the gospels. Timing has a lot to do with it. As virtually everybody now recognizes, the gospels were written roughly a generation after Paul’s letters. What I didn’t know, until reading this book, was that most scholars now believe the gospels weren’t even written in the places were Jesus lived; they’re now thought to have originated in the Diaspora. So it seems fair to say that Paul’s letters, coming before the gospels and from the areas where Jesus lived, might represent a more immediate impression of him.

Even less reliable than the gospels, it seems, is the document attributed to one "Luke" and known as the Acts of the Apostles. Mr Wills sees that piece of work as pretty much theological fiction, much in line with the Hellenistic novels being written at the time. (I thought novels weren’t invented until around the 18th century, but never mind.) In particular, Mr Wills spends considerable time and ink demonstrating the phoniness of the accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts. Not only are that document’s three different accounts of the event inconsistent, some of them contain details that are historically and politically impossible.

I’ll cite just a couple of such errors. Luke has the unconverted Paul throwing the early followers of Jesus in prison and voting for their deaths. On what authority? Jews were not allowed by the Romans to put people to death. Even more improbable, Luke has Paul dashing off, as sent by the High Priest, to arrest people in Damascus, i.e. in Syria, another country. The Roman rulers there would certainly not have recognized Jewish authority for such action, an authority that wasn’t even recognized in Judea.

So, no, the famous falling to the ground on the road to Damascus as described in Acts never occurred. (In case this has never been pointed out to you, even the accounts in Acts don’t mention the proverbial detail about Paul’s falling off his horse.) The kind of encounter Paul had with the risen Jesus was quite other. There was no magic about it, none of the folksy details about walking through doors, fingering of wounds, cooking up a miraculous catch of fish for breakfast. In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that it was a mystical experience that could not be described. Moreover, it was one of such magnitude that he must, out of modesty, put it in the third person: "And I know that this very man – whether in his body or out of it, I know not – was swept up into Paradise, where he heard unspeakable words, words it is impossible for a man to pronounce."

Regarding one aspect of Paul’s letters, Mr Wills doesn’t quite satisfy me. Many of Paul’s ideas seem utterly unprecedented in the history of any kind of thinking, either theological or secular. Even granting some Greek influence on Paul (which Mr Wills plays down), you have to wonder where his ideas came from. The traditional – shall we say devout? – explanation is that Paul was divinely inspired. You know the old saw, everything in the bible was dictated by God.

Mr Wills offers a slight nod to that line of thinking. He says Paul had to "puzzle out" the meaning of Jesus’ life and death "under divine guidance." Somehow, that won’t do for me. All Mr Wills gives by way of any further explanation is that Paul’s writings reflect the thinking of his communities. Some passages in his writings, in fact, are clearly based on, if not exact redactions of, hymns that were sung in the gatherings of early Christians. But I don’t find that an adequate answer to my question. Until a better one comes along, I’ll just have to accept that Paul was an original thinker of incomparable genius.

In the meantime, many other themes in Mr Wills’ book have enlightened and entertained me. One notable one involves the character of Paul. The image of Paul that has come through to me, from as far back as primary school, right up to the latest Vatican pronouncements and the ensuing resentment in various circles, presents him as a somewhat stern, cross, opinionated, bossy old patriarch and male chauvinist. Not so, in Mr Wills' view. Here we get a Paul who is long-suffering and hard-working. He’s by no means the fly-by-night artist depicted in Acts. He stays with his communities for long periods of time and he cares passionately about them, usually slaving away at manual labour to make his living while in their midst. 

Mr Wills even picks up on physical characteristics that, although they’re mentioned in Paul’s letters, most of us probably overlooked, perhaps because they didn’t fit our preconceived notions. The Corinthians, for example, thought of Paul as physically feeble and, even more surprisingly, not a very good speaker. It seems only in his writings that he was able to call on any eloquence. All that helps to make him a more accessible guy for me.

Then what about some of his most objectionable teachings? One of the biggies today would be his opinion on the role of women.

Mr Wills takes several approaches to this thorny subject. First, he makes it clear that Paul had many outstanding women in his communities and he encouraged them in leadership roles. One that he singles out at the end of Romans is Junia. For her to be listed among the special community members is clearly a high honour and most of the early Fathers of the church recognized her accordingly. Sometime in the Middle Ages, though, when the male stranglehold on church authority had become fully entrenched, it was unthinkable that a woman disciple should be given such prominence. How did the church officials deal with such an embarrassing faux pas on Paul’s part? Simple. In all further translations of the text, her name was given a masculine form. Only problem – that male form of the name had never existed anywhere in any other ancient documents, although the female form was very common.

Still, aren’t there some pretty objectionable instructions in Paul’s letters about women keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut in the community gatherings? Yes, there are. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul says a woman should not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered. What’s most important to note here, Mr Wills points out, is that Paul does envision women prophesying. As for the headgear issue, Mr Wills says that Paul was apparently addressing a local squabble: there was also an instruction in Paul’s writings that men should not have their heads covered when praying or prophesying. So it would appear that some departure from custom was causing bitterness. Since we don’t know the circumstances, we can’t judge how much value to assign to Paul’s efforts to resolve the issue.

But Paul digs himself in deeper, in our view, when he goes on to provide "theological" reasons for the head covering or uncovering. A man can go uncovered Paul says, because he is the direct image of God, whereas a woman is only the image of a man, having been created after him and intended as his helpmate. Mr Wills deals with this by admitting that, yes, it’s blatant sexism and that we can’t expect Paul, with his new-found insight into spiritual things, to have shaken off every remnant of the patriarchal societies around him.

As for some of the even more harsh directives to women about keeping quiet and submitting to their husbands (I Timothy 2.11-12), Mr Wills simply doesn’t accept this as Paul’s teaching. Why? Because most scholars today don’t recognize this letter as authentically Pauline. But isn’t there a similar passage in First Corinthians (1 Cor 14.34-35), a letter that is accepted as genuine? Ahah, says Mr Wills, that passage is now considered to be a later interpolation, added to the letter by somebody who had bought into the anti-women theme of 1 Timothy. After all, earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul had endorsed the prophesying of women in the gathering. What has happened, says Mr Wills, is that the "pseudo-Paul has intruded upon the real Paul."

To cite just one more of the thorny Pauline issues that Mr Wills discusses – the attitude to Jews. Much of the regrettable culture of anti-Jewishness in the history of Christianity has been laid at Paul’s feet. Granted, his letters do seem to spew vitriol towards Jews. Without taking the time here to delineate all the complexities of the matter, we can say that Mr. Wills’ treatment comes down to the fact that Paul was addressing problems between the Jews who had become Christians and the non-Jewish Christians. The Jewish converts were, in his view, making trouble for the Gentile converts by trying to impose Jewish laws on them.

Complicating these matters were the "God-fearers" (known as Theosebeis). These were non-Jews who were sophisticated, intelligent people interested in the monotheism of Judaism. They tended to be supportive to Jews and helped secure tolerance for Judaism among the Roman rulers. However, once some of these God-fearers started to convert to Christianity, there was resentment in so far as it was thought that their support for the Jews might be withdrawn. Hence, Paul’s sometimes contentious attitude to the Jewish/non-Jewish problem. But he was certainly not issuing an outright condemnation of all Jews or Judaism.

One of the roadblocks in our understanding of Paul, Mr Wills says, is that our vision of him has been filtered through the minds of thinkers like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Pascal and Kierkegaard. Drawing heavily on the argument of Bishop Krister Stendahl, Mr Wills says that these interpreters of Paul reflect the individualistic introspection of their own cultures which emphasize sin, guilt, and the tortured conscience. But when Paul speaks, as in Romans, about being subject to sin, he is not referring to himself, Bishop Stendahl says. Paul’s not talking about individuals but about societies, his point being that both Gentiles and Jews have sinned. Paul thought of salvation, not so much in terms of the status of the individual, but as God’s action for all of creation.

Another pont Mr Wills takes from authorities like Krister Stendahl and John Gager is that modern translations tend to distort Paul’s message. Granted, it’s difficult not to fall into anachronisms when trying to convey his thought, because words like "sacraments" , "church" and "conversion" didn’t exist in his time. One measure Mr Wills takes to try to restore more of Paul’s sense is the avoidance of the words "Christ" and "Christian". Since Khristos is a title, being simply the Greek word for "Messiah, Mr Wills uses the term "Jesus Messiah" in all the places where we’re accustomed to seeing "Jesus Christ". Even stranger sounding in Mr Wills' text are the stand-alone references to "Messiah" in Paul’s many invocations, as we have come to know them, of "Christ."

But Mr Wills doesn’t explain, as far as I can tell, where some of his other translations come from. He seems to have got hold of some version of the New Testament with startlingly fresh and contemporary-sounding phrases. Take this line from Galatians 2.11: "When Kephas came to Antioch, I rebuked him face-to-face, since he had no leg to stand on." The good old Jerusalem Bible translates that as: "When Cephas came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong." Not nearly as catchy.Then there’s Mr Wills’ phrase from Romans 11, where Paul tells his readers, regarding the branches that have been grafted on, that they have "no reason to crow" over the replaced branches. The New International Version’s  offers the much duller: "do not boast over those branches." For Galatians 4.20, the Jerusalem Bible reads, "I wish I were with you now so that I could know exactly what to say; as it is, I have no idea what to do for the best." Mr Wills' rendering of that passage has Paul sounding like he’s just emerged from a session with his shrink: "I wish I were already by your side, to modulate my tone, so frustrated am I."

And so it goes. I like the translations Mr Wills uses very much but I think he should have let us know where he got them. Given his classical education, it’s entirely possible that these are his own translations. If so, it would be interesting for us to know that.

Fascinating and informative as this book is, I have a couple of small quibbles. Or maybe not so small.

Mr Wills establishes early on that Paul’s letters convey a more reliable sense of early Christian thinking than the gospels and Acts do, given that his letters came so much earlier. And yet, when describing the nature of Paul’s conversion encounter with Jesus – no falling to the ground, no being blinded – Mr Wills says it was, in that respect, like the appearances of the risen Jesus to Peter, James and other followers. But we only know about those appearances from the gospels. And I thought we were dismissing the historical validity of the gospels. So why are we now referring to incidents that we know about only from them?

Later, pointing out that Paul apparently, according to his own words, encountered the risen Jesus more than once, Mr Wills cites similarly multiple appearances to others as recorded in Matthew and John. So does he accept the historicity of the gospels or not? Regarding Paul’s meeting with James in Jerusalem, Mr Wills says Luke’s not mentioning the offering Paul brought with him must mean that it was not received favourably. It seems to me that the logic may be a bit wonky here. If you don’t accept the historical authenticity of a document to begin with, can you then cite that document’s not mentioning something as proof of anything?

Not that I mean to launch a full scale attack on Mr Wills on this front. I’m just observing that this business of pronouncing certain documents reliable and others not can get tricky.

A similar slackness of mental discipline, if I can call it that, creeps into the book at certain points on matters of faith. Although pitched at a popular level, this is essentially a scholarly book on an important subject. I feel such a subject  is best served when the author lays out all the most recent research and leaves us readers to make up our own minds about how these impact our private beliefs. That was one of my problems with The Jesus Sayings (see Dilettante’s Diary review, on a page of its own, just above the page "Feb 8/09" in the navigation bar). The author’s religious fervour intruded on the intellectual content at times.

Here too, occasional glimmerings of devotion make me uneasy. In a footnote to the first chapter, Mr. Wills says that Jesus’ risen body is a mystery not easily explained, "but Jesus surely knew how to make himself known." It sounds like Mr Wills is referring to a Jesus about whom he has a whole load of personal assumptions and impressions going way beyond the evidence of the texts under discussion. I would prefer that the attention be limited to them.

The voice of Mr Wills the believer surfaces again in a discussion of the Our Father:

...when we pray in the Our Father "Your name be made holy" (Mt 6.9), we cannot make it holy. No human being can. We are praying that God vindicate his title (name) by manifesting it.

If Mr Wills were expounding here on Paul’s teaching, I’d have no problem with the passage. But Paul can't be commenting on the Our Father because the gospels, the source of the prayer, hadn’t been written yet. So we seem to be getting Mr Wills’ beliefs here, rather than Paul’s. Not that I want to deprive Mr Wills or any other writer of the right to his or her own beliefs. The trouble is that, when an author starts to insert belief into the discussion, you begin to wonder about everything that went before: what's evidence-based and what isn't? As you might say, when faith intrudes, doubts arise.


The Lincoln Lawyer (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2005

In the New Yorker a few months back, Nicholson Baker reviewed Amazon’s new electronic book, Kindle. Mr. Baker started out pretty skeptical about the attractions of the gizmo, thinking it could never match the pleasure of sitting with an old-fashioned book. But someone had told him that his awareness of the technology would disappear as he became more focused on the material. Indeed, Mr. Baker got so caught up in one novel that, by the sounds of it, he nearly swallowed the Kindle in his race to get to the end of the story.

The book? Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer.

That sounded like a pretty good recommendation to me, given that Mr. Connelly already occupies one of the top spots in my personal echelon of mystery writers. Hence the book’s appearance on my list of summer reads. Given that it looked so promising, though, I held it for a good long session of free time when it would be possible to immerse myself in it completely.

Good idea. The thing that amazes me is that Michael Connelly tells a story so well. A master of the ancient art, he catches your attention and hooks you, moving you through the story with pleasure. All worries and cares fade into the background. The odd corny touch may crop up here and there, the occasional clich intrudes but, for the most part, you’re thoroughly engaged. Almost every page offers new interest.

The eponymous lawyer is Michael Haller, a defense attorney in Los Angeles. The main story concerns his efforts on behalf of a rich young playboy accused of battering a prostitute. The accused looks pretty guilty, but that doesn’t matter to Haller, who totally buys into the principle that the defense attorney’s job isn’t to deal with guilt or innocence but to test the system, with the aim of seeing that an accused gets a fair trial. In any case, various doubts about this accused’s guilt make for sufficient intrigue.

Eventually – and in ways that it would be unfair to reveal here – the accused maneuvers Haller into an extremely difficult situation. It all has to do with complications around the issue of lawyer-client confidentiality. Haller’s belief about the lawyer’s obligation to test the system comes in for a severe test of its own.

The resulting trial scene, extending over more than 150 pages at the heart of the book, proves a knock-out. I haven’t read a lot of lawyer novels (John Grisham being an unknown quantity around here) but it strikes me that there could hardly be a more gripping trial in fiction or theatre. Mr. Connelly’s understanding of defense strategy, his display of Haller’s psychological savvy and his canny tactics – both fair and unfair – dazzles. Does Mr. Connelly stack the deck a bit in making the prosecutor an inexperienced, error-prone jerk? A little perhaps. But it makes for great entertainment.

An actual murder occurs in the lead-up to the trial and a possible link to a previous case of Haller’s comes to light. Other affairs of Haller’s get some ink too – his dealings with biker gangs and with a broken-down prostitute, for instance. I’ve complained about such digressions in other mysteries. (See my review of The Night Gardener, October 22/09.) But the subplots don’t bother me here because, for one thing, they do impact, even if in small ways, on the main plot. But the more important factor is that it’s not a case of new people being introduced without any relationship to the main character. They earn their presence in the novel by their connection to Haller. The book is all about him. He is The Man.

And what a man. Not, however, what you’d call the most high-minded representative of the legal profession. If you think the "Lincoln" in the title implies some sort of nobility or some connection to the esteemed American leader of that name, then you’re in for a big disillusionment. If there is any such reference intended, it’s got to be ironic. As applied to Haller, "Lincoln" refers to the Town Car in which he rides around, chauffeured by an ex-con he has defended, all the while doing deals with all and sundry on his cell phone. Turns out he has three more Lincolns stored in a garage. Some time back, when he was unusually flush, he bought all four to get a "fleet" discount. When each one reaches 60,000 miles, he intends to dump it on a limousine service and start on another.

Not that he has that kind of cash to throw around now. He lives in a modest dwelling but the spectacular view accounts for the high payments that he can barely afford. His ex-wife, the second in that department, manages his business from her apartment. (His first ex-wife, the mother of his young daughter, is the prosecutor who first took on the case of the battered young prostitute. When Haller turned up as the defense, his ex had to step down from the case.) Haller makes it clear to us that, when a case comes calling, his first concern is to establish how much money it’s likely to bring in. The case of the accused young playboy looks to be something in the way of a jackpot. So much so that Haller hopes to avert any chance of the case’s being wrapped up quickly rather than spinning out the dough that he’s expecting.

Venal as he may sound, he makes a valid point, in my view, when he observes, after one scam artist complains about his fees: "They always blame the lawyer for making a living. As if it’s a crime to want to be paid for doing a day’s work." And it seemed to me that his comment about the perennial conflict between cops and defence lawyers bears thinking about: "Every cop had a jaundiced eye when it came to defense lawyers. It was as if they believed their own actions and investigations were beyond questioning or reproach. They didn’t believe in a justice system based on checks and balances."

Sleazy as Haller may appear to anyone the least inclined to cynicism about the legal profession, a writer as good as Michael Connelly isn’t going to waste your time with a totally unlikeable main character. Haller does occasionally express pity for the deadbeats and losers he defends. And there’s that washed up hooker he’s been representing all these years – for free. Another point in his favour: he knows he hasn’t been a very good father to his daughter but he does try to make amends. Put it this way: a lot of people wouldn’t want to shake Haller’s hand at a party but I found him to be fairly decent under all the scheming and conniving. And any guy who can make a good joke, especially at his own expense, earns quite a bit of indulgence in my inner court room where characters are judged. Haller, not able to recall a drunken sexual encounter with a woman who has reminded him of it, tells us: "I felt incredibly left out at not remembering."

After such a good read, it came to me as a slight disappointment that the ending fell a bit flat. We get the typical chase that comes at the end of almost all mysteries now. This one does have a special twist, though. And there’s a genuine surprise in the discovery of the murderer. I also liked the fact that we didn’t know until well into the book that one of the characters was gay. You have to admire Mr. Connelly’s recognition of the fact that we’ve reached the state in our society that such information about a person doesn’t have to be mentioned if it doesn’t have any bearing on the person’s role in the story.

As for the book’s slightly less impressive features: Some of the conflicts strike me as too stagey – confrontations between Haller and hostile detectives, for instance. Examples of corny touches would include somebody’s losing their appetite on hearing bad news and somebody’s being "uneasy" about something but not knowing what. There are also a few instances of laborious "telling" and expository dialogue. I’m happy to report, though, that we get relatively little of the old "flushing-and-flashing" business. (You know, the autonomic responses, so labelled in my review of North of Montana, Oct 6/09.) In this book’s 400-plus pages, I counted less than ten instances. Still, none of them added anything. The material would have worked just as well without them.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com