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April 17/10

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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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. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page while the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: The Marriage of Figaro (Opera); Greenberg (Movie); The Misfortunates (Movie); Matisse: The Master (Bio); Gone Tomorrow (Thriller); Prefiguration of Lalo Cura (Short Story); La Traviata (Opera)

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by W.A. Mozart; English translation by Jeremy Sams; conducted by David Fallis; directed by Marshall Pynkoski; starring Olivier Laquerre, Carla Huhtanen, Laura Pudwell, Curtis Sullivan, Wallis Giunta, Phillip Addis, Peggy Kriha Dye, Vasil Garanliev, Cavell Wood, Patrick Jang; with the Artists of the Atelier Ballet and the musicians of Tafelmusik Orchestra. Elgin Theatre, Toronto; to May 1st.

You head out to a production of this opera wondering just how much of the masterpiece will be conveyed. After all, we’re talking about one of the high points of Western culture. Sort of like Hamlet – no theatre company or actor, no matter how stellar, can do full justice to the piece. So I’m happy to report that this production does a creditable job of Figaro – especially in musical terms. The singing is excellent throughout (with a couple of exceptions, one of them minor and one major). Although the overture doesn’t have as much bite as some renditions I’ve heard, the orchestra ’s contribution to the proceedings serves well.

When the curtain comes up, we’re reminded at once that this is an Opera Atelier production. The sight that greets us is a tableau of the cast members frozen in position, striking a commedia dell’arte tone. Ah yes: the company has always specialized in 17th and 18th century pieces, with emphasis on period style and dance. (The company’s co-founders Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg began their careers largely in dance.) So here we have a well-trained corps de ballet executing much of the dancing that other productions would slough off onto the chorus members. The concept of the production also calls for lots of choreography and stylized movement from the singers, some of whom handle it with more finesse than others.

In the spirit of commedia dell’arte, we get some characters in masks. One of them wields an actual slapstick. The acting is very broad, with lots of foot stomping. A reasonable approach, perhaps, given the tom-foolery of the plot. But does this cartoonish style suit the sublime music? One place where that question looms large would be the Countess’s first scene. Why should she be throwing herself around the room in despair, when the music sets a stately, dignified mood?

The fourth act garden scene proves especially problematic in this regard. While Susanna sings her gorgeously seductive serenade, Figaro scampers about behind her, lugging a portable pine tree like a coureur de bois portaging with his canoe. Shtick more suited to Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps, than Mozart. It made me long for the exquisite sensitivity of the scene as done in the Metropolitan Opera’s Figaro of recent years. (For my review of that show, see the page "May 2/06").

Being very fond of the original Italian libretto, I was wary of this English translation. But guess what? It helps considerably -- especially in the recitatives -- when it comes to understanding the convoluted shenanigans of the opera. (No matter how often I see it, some of the plot’s twists and turns inevitably elude me.) The rhymes are clever and amusing. Even in the arias, for the most part, I don’t miss the original libretto as much as I’d feared. Only in the Countess’ third-act aria "Dove sono" does the English translation strike a regrettably banal contrast to the glorious music.

In that aria, thank goodness, the direction allows the Countess to remain still. Because of the fact that she pulls off that supremely challenging aria so well – and because it’s one of the few moments of the opera that engaged me emotionally – I’ll award top honours among sopranos to Peggy Kriha Dye. There really isn’t much other basis on which to discriminate between her and Carla Hyhtanen, who sings Susanna splendidly. Not only do the two women sound equally beautiful, they look much alike. The resemblance has a pay-off in the final scene where they impersonate each other, but it bothered me a lot throughout the earlier part of the opera that Susanna, a humble maid, should be flouncing around in a dress almost as fancy as her lady’s.

In the other major soprano role, Wallis Giunta sings Cherubino spectacularly well. In spite of her tossing off her two important arias with near perfection – something rarely achieved – the Toronto audience acknowledged these accomplishments with barely a smattering of applause. And yet, said audience members had applauded every time Director Pyknoski paused for breath in his promotional pep talk before the performance. Shows you that audiences will respond the way they’re trained, I guess.

The small role of Barbarina is sung by Cavell Wood who, the program tells us, is seventeen years old. She reportedly has a very promising career shaping up. It pains me to say, however, that I do not think this young woman should be singing opera. Not yet, at least. She looks lovely and moves charmingly, but her singing is not up to the job.

A more troubling case of iffy singing would be the performance of Olivier Laquerre in the title role. Judging by the list of his credits in the program, it will not do Mr. Laquerre’s career any harm to say this here, but he too does not strike me as an opera singer. His voice simply doesn’t carry. He may be singing beautifully and his acting is engaging (except for all the foot stomping) but you can’t hear him well enough, particularly in the ensembles. A production of this opera inevitably loses some of its punch when you don’t have a gutsy Figaro.

Things improve considerably, then, when Phillip Addis holds forth as the Count. Mr. Addis may not have quite the vocal gravitas for an idea Count but his voice is clear, bright and agile; most importantly, it cuts through all the fiddle-faddle to make its point. I did have trouble, though, with the character’s appearance. Admittedly, Mr. Addis can’t help the fact that he looks about twenty-four-years-old but, why, in an opera where period style is emphasized, would you have a Count with a spikey hairdo like a contemporary rock star?

I tried to think of this Count as some bratty young royal who had married a woman somewhat older than himself and who expected always to get his own way. Mr. Addis sang so well that it almost worked for me. Still, a little nuance in the performance would have been appreciated. Couldn’t we have a young Count – bratty and all – who did something other than snarl all the time?


Greenberg (Movie) written by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh; directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rhys Ifans; with Chris Messina and Susan Traylor

By keeping you off balance so that you never know quite what’s going down, this move makes you ask yourself what you’re expecting from a movie. More specifically, do you want this man and woman to get together?

The guy in question, Roger Greenberg, as played by Ben Stiller, is an obsessive/compulsive, anal-retentive forty-one year old, recovering from a spell in a psychiatric ward after a "nervous breakdown". Having been raised in Los Angeles but living in Manhattan now, he comes back to LA to hang out in the house of his brother Phillip who’s away. Roger has about as much charm as a spider; his attempts to ingratiate himself invariably backfire. When not writing pompous letters to public officials and institutions to complain about various aspects of existence in this world, Roger is constantly coating his lips with chap stick and trying in every way to avoid contact with any germs. Not a driver himself, he issues driving instructions to anybody’s who’s giving him a ride. When a friend tries to please him with a birthday cake at a restaurant celebration, Greenberg explodes in a rage, yelling: "Sit on my dick!"

As the potential love interest for this cuddly hero we have twenty-something Florence (Greta Gerwig), who works as an "assistant" to Phillip’s family – picking up dry cleaning and doing other errands. She has her own apartment but she necessarily encounters Roger on visits to Phillip's house having to do with business such as the care of the family’s dog.

Maybe it’s just a result of our training in what to expect from a movie, but let’s say it looks like these two gotta get together. If so, their way of getting to that point will be damned unromantic. Which seems to be the movie’s view of life in general. Take the awkward conversations. Greenberg meets up with an old flame, as played with laid-back believability by co-author and producer of the movie, Jennifer Jason Leigh. He’s trying to rekindle some sexy memories but, she, pre-occupied with concerns about her young kid, can’t recall anything much in the erotic line. The scene has the flat, anti-climactic feel of so many encounters in real life. In a similar vein of the dull and commonplace, Welsh plays a pot-bellied recovering addict whose British style and flair seemed the epitome of cool to Greenberg and his pals when they were young.

It all has very much the feel of contemporary situations. Especially when it comes to sex. Not that I know much about what goes on in that department these days,* but what happens here looks totally credible to me. A young woman, on the way to bed with a new acquaintance, hesitates and tells him that she has just come out of a long relationship. In a mightily ironic form of reassurance, he points out to her: "This is not a relationship." Remembering that it’s all supposed to be casual, the woman submits, almost with indifference. Same with subsequent sexual encounters: she more or less takes them for granted. Just occasionally, you get a hint that she might prefer something a bit more meaningful.

As Florence, Greta Gerwig exudes a beauty and sensuality that are both attractive and gawky. A trifle ripe for her age, with a slight bulge around the waist but with a dazzling smile, she seems more like a typical young woman you’d see on the subway than a movie star. In this respect, Ms. Gerwig exemplifies one of the most important things in this slice-of-life kind of movie: everything needs to be completely believable and real.

As for Ben Stiller’s score on this point, I wasn’t so sure at first. Not that it’s any fault of his, but, for a while, you keep thinking: here’s an actor doing a depressed, hang-dog thing, trying to convince us that he’s not a rich and successful movie star. But Mr. Stiller does eventually make me believe in the character. I think it’s the tiny details, the nuances, that do it. He righteously punches a van that has cut him off at a crossing but, when the van jerks to a stop, he scurries away mouse-like. When he’s got the wrong end of the stick in a conversation, though, he keeps coming back with sputtering codas. In a big fight with Florence, he tells her she’s screwed up because "Your father molested you or whatever." She angrily protests: "My father didn’t molest me." He answers: "I said ‘whatever’."

These aren’t exact quotes, but you get the idea: he’s makes himself look worse with these pathetic attempts at self-justification. Occasionally, an acerbic wit flashes in his jibes at the assholes of the world, but the closest the character ever gets to being amusing – unintentionally – is when he reacts with indignation on being told that he has no sense of humour. Playing the scene perfectly straight, Mr. Stiller wisely avoids the attempt here to fall into comedy.

That could be said for the movie as a whole. Some of the stuff about veterinarians and animal care makes you think the movie could be a satire on the industry. But it never quite tips over into that territory. Things are presented just as they are. If you see the ridiculous side of them, that’s ok.

Given that the movie depends entirely for its effect on a low-key take on contemporary life and mores, a few things stand out as implausible or not very realistic. We’ll overlook the business about any family having an "assistant" on staff. But what’s with the "nervous breakdown"? Does anybody use that term any more? Come to think of it, do people sit around and compare notes about therapy sessions: "My shrink told me this" and "My shrink told me that." I didn’t think psychiatrists were in the business of handing out home truths these days. And Greenberg’s not being able to drive comes across as a glaring plot device to force encounters between him and the reluctant Florence.

But the most jarring departure from the overall tone of the movie involves some hyped stuff near the end. It’s almost as if the film makers don’t trust that the movie is working as well as it is in its subtle way. They have to throw in some big drama by way of a climax. A druggy party inflicted on Greenberg by his brother’s step-daughter makes for a certain amount of on-screen hijinks but it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story and could have been dispensed with entirely. Thankfully, the sudden and unexpected ending reverts to the verismo style of the rest of the movie.

* It never occurred to me that anybody would take that as anything but a joke, coming, as it does, from a hale and hearty youngster like me.

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


The Misfortunates (Movie) written by Christophe Dirickx and Felix Van Groeningen; based on the novel by Dimitri Verhulst; directed by Felix Van Groeningen; starring Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentinjin Dhaenens, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Haelvoet, Gilda De Bal, Natali Broods, Pauline Grossen, Guy Demul, Sara De Bosschere.

Various media references that I happened to notice before seeing this movie compared it to the Trailer Park Boys. Although I’ve never seen any of their oeuvre – apart from some movie previews – my guess is that any similarities could only be very superficial. Yes, it’s true that the settings are comparably scuzzy – one in Belgium and the other in Eastern Canada – and the characters of both might be characterized as belonging to what some people call the "hoser" class.

But I seriously doubt that the Trailer Park Boys’ films and tv programs have ever come close to the beauty and bleakness in The Misfortunates. Put it this way: the creative team behind Trailer Boys wouldn’t likely think to use, as this film does, excerpts from the music of composers such as Orlando di Lasso and Claudio Monteverdi to underline moments of great poignancy.

The movie’s told in flashback, by Gunther, a writer in his thirties. Back in the late 1980s, he was a thirteen-year-old, living in his grandmother’s crowded house in a small Belgian town with his dad and his dad’s three brothers. (Gunther, the result of a quick bang outside a bar, has never had much to do with his mother.) While Gunther’s granny (Gilda De Bal) tries to provide some domesticity for her four sons and her grandson, these men of the Strobbe family don’t give her much help. Unless you count the time when a pigeon attracted by a neighbour’s feedings is fouling Granny’s laundry: one of her chivalrous sons picks up a shotgun, marches outside in his underpants and shoots the pigeon.

Apart from that, these guys pretty much clog the premises. Gunther’s dad supposedly has a job as a letter carrier but most of the time we see him lounging around the house, smoking and drinking beer. One of the uncles has a gambling problem. The others may not have diagnosable issues but it’s clear that nobody’s an over-achiever.

You begin to wonder about that non-idiomatic English title. Is it just a mistake on the part of a translator or does it reflect the inept way with language that these guys might use to describe their lot in life? Even the episodic structure of the movie (adapted from a novel) reflects their aimlessness. Things happen, then we move on to the next crisis: a car accident, or the arrival of a long-absent sister with her child, or a drinking contest, or Gunther’s fight with a school pal, or a run-in with the school’s principal. The only thread running through it all would be the question: should young Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden) stay in this home or would he be better off being raised elsewhere?

Among the reasons that question might arise, there would be the fact that Gunther often has to lie in bed listening to the youngest of his uncles (Wouter Hendrickx) having sex in the adjacent bed with the chosen female of the night. Gunther drinks beer and smokes when he gets a chance; nobody pays much attention. And then there’s the way his dad (Koen De Graeve) prompts Gunther to put dirty wisecracks in the lines that the teacher makes him write for punishment. Not to mention the obscene songs the uncles teach him. And the way they keep telling him that his life will begin once he starts using his penis for screwing. But the worst aspect of the home scene would be the violence. His dad does not tend to be gentle when he’s drunk, which is most of the time. So Gunther comes in for a fair bit of physical abuse.

And yet, there’s love, affection and fun in this family. When the school principal (Guy Demul) first suggests to Gunther that he board elsewhere during the school week, the puzzled look on the kid’s face shows that it never would have occurred to him that there could be anything wrong with his home. He likes the way the youngest of his uncles calls him "little brother" when the two of them take off into the countryside. In one early scene, the family’s tv has been re-possessed, so the five males invite themselves into the living room of some politely bewildered Iranian neighbours to watch their beloved Roy Orbison. For some reason, the Strobbe family links its fortunes to those of Roy Orbison; now that he’s making a comeback, they feel that their star is on the rise too. The scene brims with infectious good humour, even when the brothers mistakenly offer a toast to Iraq (instead of Iran). When they pull the stilted Iranian couple onto the floor to dance, you can see why Gunther enjoys being around these guys.

Which makes the question of his potential wellbeing all the more pressing as the dad’s alcoholism leads to more and more bad times. Maybe you, as viewer, will come to the conclusion that the situation is intolerable, long before a social worker (Sara De Boscherre) intervenes. Maybe you’ll figure that Gunther himself should recognize by now that his well being lies elsewhere. Certainly, the events that unfold would justify that decision. And yet, at one point when the dad is sober, he and the son enjoy a bright, sunny jog in the country. So maybe there’s hope after all?

Al of which is to say that this movie would make for a very satisfying hour or so if it weren’t for a few problems.

First, there’s my old bugbear – the use, in many parts of the movie, of a hand-held camera. Granted, it creates a suitably chaotic documentary feel. But it makes for dizzy watching, especially when you’re trying to decipher subtitles. Another thing about those subtitles: they’re often translating the voice-over narration of Gunther, the mature writer. Now, I have no problem with a bit of voice-over narration to set up a movie, to get things rolling, to help us to get our bearings. If the narration goes on for too long, though, it begins to seem that there’s something wrong. Script-writers should be able to dramatize a story without falling back constantly on voice-over narration. If they do need to resort to it so much, I start thinking I’d be better off reading the original novel. Especially, in this case, given that the narration sometimes falls into an arch, literary tone.

But the main problem here isn’t with the device of the narrator; it’s the character of this particular narrator. Gunther as a mature man (Valentijin Dhaenens) seems nothing like the young Gunther. As a kid, Gunther was by no means Pollyanna-ish; he was shrewd and wily. Still, there was something ingenuous and open about him, pimples, crooked teeth and all. The adult Gunther, though, is a self-absorbed, unpleasant man who casts a distinct sourness over the story. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the actor playing the role has a hard, unyielding expression. Maybe the point is to show the damage that Gunther’s upbringing did to him. Admittedly, he does show some slight tendency towards redemption at the very end of the movie. And maybe the message is that you can only do the best you can do, given the wounds you’ve suffered. But that moral would have resonated more with me if the adult Gunther hadn’t seemed such a prick.

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


Matisse: The Master (Biography) by Hilary Spurling, 2005

First, an admission: my take on this book about the second part of Matisse’s life (1909-1954) may be slightly skewed by my not reading the first volume. But please don’t ask me to undertake it. This one took several weeks of hard slogging, by means of repeated library loans, each of them extended to the max.

You may have guessed, then, that this is the kind of bio that wants to make itself the ultimate reference for any information on the great person who is its subject. I’m not sure whether the authors of this kind of thing are more concerned about earning a name for themselves as experts in a certain field or about providing their readers with a satisfying reading experience. Mine would have been enhanced with less detail and more emphasis on key points.

Still, the book offers lots of interesting information about the artist and, in the process, gives a certain perspective on the history of Western art in the first half of the twentieth century. For instance, we get a sense of Matisse’s on-again-off-again rivalry/friendship with Pablo Picasso. For a while, it was a duel between the two of them to see which would be the dominant force in modern art. Other names of famous people who had some role in Matisse’s story help to convey the ferment that was going on in the world of the arts at the time: Gertrude Stein, her brother Michael and his wife Sarah; James Joyce; Kenneth Clark; Albert C. Barnes (of the famous Barnes Foundation, based in Philadelphia); and Georges Rouault (among many other contemporary artists).

In terms of his own artistic process, one of the key dynamics for Matisse was the constant dialectic between what might be called passion and analysis. Various other formations express it as the duality of: feeling and form; instinct and criticism; intuition and reason; or, colour and line. Matisse was always trying to strike the right balance between the opposing forces. This understanding of his struggle helps me to appreciate work that has sometimes struck me as too primitive and simple: Matisse was trying to reduce paintings to their most basic elements of design and colour. His statement about a composition particularly fascinated me:

This space is constructed from a convergence of forces that has nothing to do with the direct copying of nature. It’s difficult to explain more fully because, with this sort of construction, a large part is down to the mysterious workings of instinct.

One small point that especially interested me (as a would-be artist) was the reference to his working carefully on a drawing of a lace collar. Who would ever have thought an artist famed for his quick, breezy work, would spend time on meticulous draftsmanship? His reason for doing so was so that, when the time came to paint it quickly, he would get it right with just a couple of slashes. I found it very reassurring to know that an artist can take great effort to master something so that it will look tossed off, much the way a writer might handle, say, reviews of books and movies.

As for the character of the man, my impression of him prior to this reading stemmed from a story told by a friend of mine. He knew somebody who once lived in the same Paris apartment building as Matisse. There was a fuss among the tenants about people leaving baby carriages in the foyer. At a meeting called to discuss the issue, Matisse was reported (by my friend’s friend) to have said that, since life was difficult enough for parents of little ones, people should be willing to make things easier for them by letting them leave the buggies at the front door. 

To a large extent, this bio confirms that sense of the man. He often gave drawings and sketches to people by way of an investment to cover their future needs. He could be open-minded and tolerant, as evidenced in his statement about reprisals at the end of the war: "At bottom I don’t believe it’s up to any of us to torment people with ideas different from our own." While activism wasn’t in his nature, he refused to criticize Picasso for taking a more public, political role. Even when it came to the frequenting of brothels, Matisse took a temperate, matter-of-fact approach, more or less the way a guy today might regard his regular workouts at the gym.

An admirable man, in many ways. And one whose impact on the history of Western art demands such a comprehensive biography. But I do wish Ms. Spurling had not treated her subject with such slavish veneration. Do we need to know that, when a model fainted while posing, Monsieur and Madame Matisse were so concerned that "both of them accompanied her home and made her promise to rest"? Isn’t it making too much of a common cold to say that Matisse "fell ill for two weeks with bronchitis"? Sometimes, Ms. Spurling’s awe towards her subject leads her to make ill-founded assumptions – as, for example, the statement that, one winter "Matisse rashly stepped outside with a head cold and contracted flu, which turned to bronchial pneumonia." I don’t think any medically savvy person would accept that sequence of cause and effect these days.

An even more outrageous over-statement comes in Ms. Spurling’s reference to a dream in which Matisse felt he was condemned to death and waiting to be led to execution. "For once," Ms. Spurling says, "...reality had outstripped his imagination...." What reality? Matisse was undergoing a separation from his wife and a division of their property. Not very nice. But worse than condemnation and execution? You get the impression that Ms. Spurling has fallen for the myth that creative geniuses necessarily endure great emotional ordeals – the same sort of shibboleth that inspired mile Zola to write "L’Oeuvre", a ridiculously melodramatic novel based on the life of his old pal Paul Czanne, an artist whose existence on this planet was, in fact, relatively placid and untroubled.

In a burst of devout compassion for her subject, Ms. Spurling states at one point that "he was obliged to swallow a beer to calm his nerves." That sounds like a joke, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. As for those omni-present nerves, we get frequent mention of dread, depression, demons, terrors, inner turmoil, (with nosebleeds possibly related) and lassitude. All this was seen to require the taking of chloroform and belladonna by the artist. You begin to wish the author would simply say "he was awfully neurotic" and leave it at that. The devoted recording of every tic and tremor begins to have a backlash effect. Instead of arousing your sympathy, it makes you impatient with the subject. 

Not surprisingly, such a man wasn’t easy to live with. "Implacable," "ominous" and "irascible" come up in descriptions of him from his family’s point of view. His two sons, particularly, seemed to suffer through all their lives for feeling that they could never live up to his high standards. Although Matisse was able to support his extended family in great style once he became famous and prosperous, they all knew that their needs came second to his artistic demands. The best that can be said for him on that score is that some writings undertaken near the end of his life show that he recognized and regretted that his artistic obsession had made life so difficult for his loved ones.

In spite of all those off-putting aspects of his character, the book ends with an episode that gets me back on his side. Throughout my reading, I kept wondering about a vague memory of something to do with Matisse. When we were living in the south of France years ago, hadn’t we heard something about his having designed a chapel for some nuns nearby? As this exhaustive bio was detailing the years of his dwindling health and energy, however, it was beginning to look as though no such project had ever happened. Just before the end of the book, though, the episode turned up in twelve entertaining pages.

It all started with a young friend of Matisse’s who scandalized him by joining a Dominican convent near Nice. One day she brought him a drawing of a window she had designed for a garage that was going to be turned into a chapel. Not satisfied with her efforts, the Master started sketching a window of his own. Soon, it became a design for the whole chapel. In subsequent years, the construction encountered nearly-insuperable obstacles, not least of which was the indignation of church authorities at the thought of this notorious atheist’s involvement. Even when the chapel was finished, the nuns for whom it was designed recoiled from features like twisted black squiggles representing the stations of the cross. Within a year, though, the nun who gave tours of the chapel proudly told visitors who were baffled about the meaning of it all: "It means modern."


Gone Tomorrow (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2009

We all know by now that Lee Child writes superlative thrillers. (For reviews of his books, see Dilettante’s Diary pages: Mar 17/10; Summer Mysteries ‘07; Myriad Mysteries 2009). So, rather than talk much about the plot of this book, let’s discuss what makes Mr. Child’s writing so good.

One of his most outstanding traits as a thriller writer is his way with calculations involving mathematical matters of times, weights, speeds, distances and such. Mr. Child makes Jack Reacher's astounding physical feats just plausible by giving him the uncanny knack for figuring out, for example, how fast a train is moving, what’s its weight and momentum will be, the time it will take to enter a station and so on. Thus, in this book Reacher is able to pull off a couple of stunning escapes from the platforms of subway stations.

By contrast with such prodigious stunts, something that makes Reacher a believable and likeable character is his honesty about his limitations. At a point where he’s trying to choose between fight and flight, he opts for the former because his opponents "....were probably faster than me. The law of averages. Most humans are faster than me. The old lady in the summer dress was probably faster than me. Her old gray mutt was probably faster than me." At another point, he describes his attempts to heave himself onto a roof: "Not an elegant process. I am no kind of a gymnast." After a particularly gruelling fight, he admits: "I was a little shaken. As always."

When it comes to ineptitude in less brutish areas, Reacher knows almost nothing about computers or cell phones. That’s so refreshing in a world of crime fiction where cops and detectives now rely almost totally on these gizmos. What’s more, Reacher’s ignorance of them adds a certain fillip to the story, in that his fumbling attempts to avail himself of these devices have interesting plot consequences.

For a hero that some critics call "a tough guy’s tough guy" (that must be the appeal for me!), Reacher exhibits an impressive grasp of psychology. In this book, his understanding of a frightened night porter’s behaviour helps Reacher to arrive at some important conclusions. Reacher’s grasp of his own quirky psyche has its pay-offs too: "I know New York reasonably well. I can make sense of the city, especially from the kind of angles most normal people don’t consider."

Then there are Mr. Child’s vast stores of fascinating information, conveyed by way of Reacher. Much of the first part of the book involves a lengthy study of the behaviour of suicide bombers. Two pages are packed with everything you’d ever want to know about how they equip themselves. One of the most striking details on the subject is the revelation that these people are often well doped when they do the desperate deed. How do we know? Because they turn out to have a thick wad of opium tucked into one of their cheeks. The explanation of that discovery involves a startling exposition of the way a dynamite explosion affects the human head.

Speaking of that opening of the book, let’s not forget to mention that Mr. Child’s pulls off some of the tautest, most suspenseful writing you’re going to find anywhere. The first thirty pages of this book pack an incredible amount of tension. So do the book’s final pages. This kind of writing not only epitomizes the term thriller but gives it a new edge.

On top of which, there’s some excellent writing of a different kind. The book abounds with observations and effects that would get your attention in works considered to be fine literature. At one point, Reacher describes some cops making their way along a crowded subway platform: "They moved people gently out of their way, palms against shoulders, short backhand moves, rhythmic, like swimming." For catchy wording, how about this tribute to the sharpness of a certain knife: "You could have dropped a ten-dollar bill on it and gotten two fives in exchange." A villain acquires sudden and impressive nobility, by facing death (at Reacher’s hands) with this line: "If you mean it, this is where you do it."

One of my favourite examples of Mr. Child’s literary skill would be this passage:

Nobody spoke, but the silence was very strange. It seemed to carry in it an unstated answer that spiraled and ballooned crazily upward and outward, like: It’s not just Samson that we’re worried about, it’s the army, it’s the military, it’s the past, it’s the future, it’s the government, it’s the country, it’s the whole wide world, it’s the entire damn universe.

As that passage would suggest, the book’s plot involves far-reaching global consequences. It all starts with Reacher’s noticing someone behaving like a suicide bomber on a New York subway late one night. Reacher’s presence at that moment drags him – somewhat unwillingly, as with most of his adventures – into a complicated tangle of daring and danger. Uncharacteristically for a Reacher yarn, some pages near the middle of the book tend to bog down with a history of the wars in Afghanistan. It’s a testament to Mr. Child’s skill that the momentum and intrigue he has created up to that point keep you reading until the adrenalin reliably starts pumping again. Surprisingly, though, one of the key mysteries remains unsolved. Far from being dissatisfied by that, I find it pleases me. Seems more like real life, somehow.


Prefiguration of Lalo Cura (Short Fiction) by Roberto Bolao, The New Yorker, April 19, 2010

This astonishing piece of short fiction by Chilean writer Roberto Bolao, who died in 2003, proves from beyond the grave that his was truly a distinctive voice. (His The Savage Detectives, reviewed on the "June 4/08" page of Dilettante’s Diary, was chosen as our outstanding book of that year.) This short story conveys a man’s thoughts about his mother’s starring in porn films when she was pregnant with him. He has since seen some of the films. They’re wildly imaginative, much more interesting than any porn that has made its way to these shores (I suspect).

Fascinating as the film scenarios are, that’s not the point my mentioning the New Yorker publication of the writing. What astounds me is its style. If you or I were to undertake a story using the same material, the paragraphs would probably evolve according to a certain familiar pattern. Not so with Senor Bolao. You get a stream of engaging information without any apparent structure or organization. Just as if some fabulous story-teller is sitting opposite you, mesmerizing you with a seductive voice and rivetting eyes, as seen through a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol. Makes a person long to hear more from him.


La Traviata (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Yves Abel; starring Angela Gheorghiu, James Valenti, Thomas Hampson; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Broadcast, April 17/10; CBC Radio Two’s "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera"

I keep expecting to get tired of La Traviata. It hasn’t happened yet. Every time, the sad tale of that unfortunate woman – more sinned against than sinning – gets to me. Mainly because of the music, of course. This past Saturday, in fact, the broadcast of the opera made it difficult for me to concentrate on new reviews I was preparing for this website. At first, it was just a case of wanting to check out a couple of the singers, and then I got hooked.

First of all, I wondered how Angela Gheorghiu would fare. From my impression of other performances of hers, Ms. Gheorghiu didn’t strike me as the Violetta type. But her voice turned out to be refulgent and voluptuous – just what you want in a Violetta. Mind you, she didn’t go for the high note that most sopranos hit at the end of the First Act. But knowing your limits surely must be one of the traits that earns you respect as an artist. And to give Ms G further credit, she, unlike many prima donna’s,  actually managed to sound frail and weak in the final act, without sacrificing any of the beauty and power of the music.

Tenor James Valenti is new to me. Just this month he received the Richard Tucker award, an honour bestowed on a young artist considered to be on the brink of an important international career in opera. My radio didn’t capture the visual aspect of his artistry very well, but I gather that he’s extremely statuesque (about 6 ft, 4 in) and gorgeous. His voice – less so, at least on first hearing. In the first act, he struck me as one of those tenors who sounds more like a baritone: meaty and masculine, very powerful, with a dark timbre but not any ring in the high notes. By the second act, his voice was beginning to ring in the upper register but it sounded barely under control. Maybe any singer, in a debut role at the Met, as this is for Mr. Valenti, could be excused for having a bit of difficulty, given the problems with this production. (The original conductor, Leonard Slatkin, withdrew after an opening night that was considered a disaster. The singers have had to contend with an assortment of conductors since then.) Come the final act, Mr. Valenti’s singing was beautiful and perfect in every way.

The photo of Mr. Valenti in Opera News makes him look swarthy and Mediterranean. In the intermission interview, though, he sounded like a modest American boy. (From New Jersey, it turns out.) The interview, – it still amazes me that singers take on this extra duty – showed him and Ms. Gheorghiu to be very congenial colleagues. They even treated us to an impromptu duet on "What a Wonderful World", complete with spontaneous harmony!

Thomas Hampson (the elder Germont) doesn’t have one of those massive voices typically known as a "Verdi baritone" (Louis Quilico, for example) but his voice is warm, mellow and very reliable. His performance of "Di Provenza il mar" surprised me, though. Rather than the sentimental, consoling tone one expects from a father to his suffering son -- which, it seems to me, is what the music wants it to be -- it sounded like a brisk, pull-up-your-socks kind of thing. In the second part of the aria, there was a hint of the weariness of the "aged progenitor" but Mr. Hampson worked the thing up to such a feverish pitch that you had to wonder whether he was more concerned about doing the music justice or about showing off in a way that would earn a huge ovation – which it did.

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