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Aug 2/10

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Here's our NEW SYSTEM for Dating Pages: The date above will be the date of the most recent postings. As usual, though, the newest reviews will appear towards the top of the page, the older ones moving further down. When the page is archived, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Restrepo (Documentary); I Am Love (Movie); CSPWC 85th Anniversary Show (Art); Black Swan Green (Novel); The Missionary Position (Religion/Biography); The Hot Kid (Crime)

Plus: mile Nelligan -- Follow-up to earlier review

Restrepo (Documentary); photographed and directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

One criterion for an outstanding documentary might be that it would show something you’ve never seen on film before. On that basis alone, Restrepo scores very high. Here you see the nitty-gritty of war from the soldier’s point of view in the front lines – a clich in fictional films but something you don’t expect to see brought back from real war. What camera operators would mix it up with the soldiers in the midst of the fighting? And even more to the point, how many soldiers would be willing to have their behaviour in battle recorded for people around the world to see? I’m thinking, in particular, of one solider who freaks out on hearing that one of his buddies has been killed.

The guys in question are members of a US Army battalion who spent a year in the notoriously dangerous Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Intrepid photographer/directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger lived with the soldiers for the entire year. From the soldiers' base camp, a crew of about fifteen was sent out to establish an outpost about one kilometre away. They named the outpost "Restrepo" after a popular medic who had been killed in action. The outpost was ultimately credited with making a significant contribution to keeping the Taliban at bay.

About thirty percent of the documentary consists of gun battles. They’re gut-wrenching to watch, not just because of the hand-held camera. That technique causes considerable gastro-intestinal discomfort hereabouts but I endured, because this was one of the few cases where the technique is essential, not just an arty style imposed by a director. You couldn’t have stationary cameras set up among soldiers scampering up cliffs and through crevices. So there’s a lot of vertigo-inducing movement as the camera sweeps rapidly from one point in a battle to another. I’m never very good at following the action even in the carefully planned shots of a fictional battle, but here confusion is inevitable. You get the feeling that that’s what it’s like for the soldiers too: a lot of shouting and smoke and noise with seldom a clear picture of what’s going on.

That immediacy, I think, is what makes the film gut-wrenching in the emotional, rather than the biological, way. It’s all so raw. There’s no theorizing, no context, no message. Just the everyday reality as the soldier sees it. Occasional reference is made to the overall purpose, but mostly it’s just the struggle for survival in the face of hostile forces. We do get some relief, though, in the way of down time among the guys. There’s the guitar-playing, the sunbathing, play wrestling and bumptious disco dancing with jokey homoerotic overtones.

The starkest contrasts to the battles, though, come in the form of interviews with some of the soldiers back in Italy after their tour of duty in the Korengal valley. Each soldier’s face is filmed in extreme close-up against a dark background. At first, you can’t help thinking how callow they look. The camera mercilessly shows up every pimple and crooked tooth. Not a lot of sophistication comes through. Or much detail about personalities – except in the case of one guy who explains that, when he was a kid, his hippie mom confiscated his turtle-shaped squirt gun because guns of any kind were verboten on her watch. (Interestingly this guy turns out to be an artist who makes beautiful drawings of the Korengal terrain.) As they talk quietly about their experience in the valley, you become somewhat humbled by the thought of what these guys have gone through. The face of one guy, who takes several moments to control his emotions when recalling the death of a comrade, provides one of the most touching examples of human dignity that you’re ever going to see on film.

Most notable among the interviewees is Captain Dan Kearney. Ruggedly handsome in a "Black Irish" way, he could be a movie star, but for a beguiling gap between his front teeth. We see him in weekly meetings with the local elders, trying his best, in the face of considerable confusion, to come to some understanding with them over various issues, such as a cow that the soldiers had to kill because it was entangled in barbed wire. Captain Kearney’s at his best, though, when he’s talking to his guys, as in the instance where he’s helping them deal with the deaths of several soldiers in a nearby operation. Do your mourning, he tells them, pray if that’s what you do, but then get out there and make the bastards who did this pay for it.

Ok, so the militaristic spirit rules. You’re not going to find these guys quoting the Dali Lama. They swear a lot; they smoke too much too. But you come away from the film with a new respect for human beings who show a hell of a lot of courage and love for each other when it comes to doing what they have to do.

Rating: B (where B = "Better than most")

 

I Am Love (Movie) written and directed by Luca Guadagnino; starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Diane Fleri, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Pippo Delbono

The movie opens in the old-fashioned way, with extensive credits in fancy script. Which would seem to suggest that we’re in for a women’s romance like the classics of the genre from the mid-twentieth century. But the background to the credits is a collage of brownish-grey scenes of a snow-covered Milan. So it would appear that this contemporary telling of the old story will be executed in tremendous style.

Which is about the only thing the movie has going for it. Much of the action takes place in a stunning stone Bauhaus villa, which, with its multifarious rooms, its paintings, its gardens and its sculpture, bids to be the most interesting character in the movie. In the splendiferous dining room of the first scene, we’re watching the birthday party of grandpa (Gabriele Ferzetti), a multi-millionaire industrialist, his adoring clan gathered around him. A middle-aged housekeeper (Maria Paiato) bustles about making sure that all family members are fittingly pampered. A white-gloved butler bears the soup in a silver tureen from guest to guest. There’s enough crystal on the table to build one of those cathedrals beloved of the tv evangelicals. For the longest time, you're wondering: is this movie about anything other than the fact that the rich don’t live the way you and I do?

If you look closely, though, there are hints of plot stirrings. A handsome grandson (Flavio Parenti) has just lost a race – what kind of race I never could tell. The winner of the race (Edoardo Gabriellini), a guy with a middle-Eastern look, turns up at the door with a package for the other guy. A bomb? No a cake. Seems the winner is a chef. Meanwhile a beloved granddaughter (Alba Rohrwacher) gives grandpa a photograph she has taken but grandpa was hoping for a painting by her. When a mom picks up her son’s jacket from the cleaners, a mysterious CD in the pocket is supposed to have some ominous implications.

What all this is about it’s hard to say. (Possibly the subtitles don’t convey enough info.) For one thing, there are too many people in the family to get to know them all. A few intelligible developments eventually emerge, though. Grandpa is going to retire and there’s the question of the leadership of the family business. Also the issue of whether or not to sell it. It transpires that the guy who brought the cake has hopes of opening a restaurant. He enlists the help of the aforementioned grandson. They may be lovers, or maybe not, because the grandson also seems to be married, or maybe not, to a pregnant young woman (Diane Fleri).

However, we’re a full hour into the movie before the main plot kicks in. At this point, the movie becomes blatantly simple, in contrast to all the obfuscation that went before. What we get now, not surprisingly, given the title, is torrid sex – of the illicit kind. During which episodes, insects bash away at nodding flowers as if they thought they were in a D.H. Lawrence movie, while John Adams’ flashy score whips the brass instruments on to higher and higher blaring climaxes. Suffice it to say that erotic misbehaviour gets its due punishment, as it should in any decent movie, even if the meting out of justice in this case requires a ridiculously implausible accident.

As one who has not always loved Tilda Swinton’s performances, I was pleased at first to see her as a gracious, middle-aged mother and hostess, actually wearing bright red lipstick and smiling – instead of the spaced-out, disaffected person she gives us in many of her movies. As in all of them, though, we needs must have many shots of Ms. Swinton striding through streets in her tall solemnity. When a producer's paying the kind of fees Ms. Swinton commands these days, I guess, the director has to make the best use of those long legs and that swan-like neck. Alas, by the end of the movie, Ms. Swinton has fallen back on her trademark way of expressing emotion – breathing through her mouth. Thus is enhanced the tragic mask impression of her countenance – an effect which, I presume, was intended to drive home melodramatic import of it all.

Which will no doubt please people who like a lot of artsy falderol, a sketch of a story providing a spurious emotional jolt, with little connection to real people or interesting ideas.

Rating: D minus (where D = "Divided", i.e. some good, some bad.) (If it weren’t for the look of the movie, the rating would be even lower.)

 

Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour: 85th Anniversary Show; also: Celebration of the Life and Art of Ming Zhou; Roberts Gallery, Toronto; until August 8th; 416-924-8731 Note: the gallery is on summer hours: Mon-Fri 10 am - 5 pm.  www.robertsgallery.net

For the past year, Torontonians who love watercolours have been feeling bereft, in that the annual show of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour took place last fall in Calgary. That show’s usually the highlight of Toronto’s watercolour year. However, by way of compensation – and a very considerable one – Toronto now has the show celebrating the CSPWC’s 85th anniversary. If you crave a dose of superb watercolour, then, get yourself down to the Roberts Gallery. (Note: some of the artists mentioned below have become friendly acquaintances of mine.)

This show inaugurates a special CSPWC prize in honour of the hundredth birthday of celebrated Canadian artist Doris McCarthy (a member of the CSPWC). The painting chosen to receive the award, a smallish work by Ed Shawcross, depicts someone feeding birds. In the foreground, we have the bird lover’s back and touque, a hand raised to the birds who are hovering in mid-flight. Ghostly trees fill in the background. While this might not be the work that some viewers would pick as their first choice for the prestigious award, it does, in its understated way, meet the criteria that the jurors said they were looking for: distinctive voice and style.

According to that standard, some other paintings that could have been short-listed would be: Ray Cattell’s wonderfully amorphous spread of colour and pigment that just manages to suggest a dwelling place in a fantastic landscape; Pat Fairhead’s vigorous strokes that hint at vegetation in an abstract way; Wendy Hoffman’s shimmering reflections of boats and mooring lines that create an abstract composition; Peter Marsh’s northern landscape in which separate patches of colour arranged in patterns bring to mind aboriginal art in Canada; Marc Gagnon’s rough, scratchy way of building an atmospheric scene featuring a cabin in the woods. (It could be, though, these last two artists weren’t eligible for the award, being on the committee that hung the show.)

In any Canadian art show, in any medium, you’ll  find lots of scene paintings. Among the many fine ones in this show, some outstanding ones would be: Pauline Holancin’s cottages on the east coast against the eery lighting of sunrise; Wilf McOstrich’s mill house on a river that evokes more gracious living of former times; Micheal Zarowsky’s thrilling blue shadows on the snow among evergreens; Ross Monk’s moody meditation on a tree-lined shore; Gill Cameron’s stylized design of Georgian Bay scenery; Maurice Snelgrove’s rendering of the chilly emptiness of a Toronto beach in winter; Clive Pawsey’s awe-inspiring  cliffs enclosing a snow-bound valley; Laura Carter’s feel for the pink granite masses of Canadian Shield territory; Mary Anne Ludlam’s special way with landscape that looks like pieces of glass of pure colour fitted together; Irene Kott’s seascape with its child-like sense of wonder; and perhaps we can include in this category, because it’s the only cityscape, E. J. Hunter’s brooding take on a downtown Toronto street at night.

I would include in the category of still life painting Carol Whitcombe’s gorgeously-coloured boats, because of the emphasis on detail. Same for Alejandro Rabazo’s astoundingly well-executed view looking up into the girders of a bridge. And Jane Hunter’s marvellously intricate close-up of snails, ferns and leaves. Also Karen Isenberg’s delicious-looking apples in a vertical composition (not the usual choice for that subject in a still life) and Jennifer Annesley’s serene painting of a bench in front of a window at Versailles.

It struck me as especially appropriate to see Dorothy Blefgen’s luminous still life "Blue Colander" in the gallery's front window on opening day – not least because this accomplished and much-loved artist died just a few weeks ago. It has been said of Dorothy that she paints "ordinary things in an extraordinary way" and this painting is one of the best examples of the way Dorothy infused the commonplace with rare insight and beauty.

Another painting that struck me as having exceptional technique and vision is Yaohua Yan’s bagpiper in a castle yard. The way the lighting on the piper is handled with the deftest of touches, all the while maintaining a loose, atmospheric rendering of the surroundings, reminded me of the work of the great Chinese-Canadian artist Ming Zhou. Mr. Zhou, who died tragically from disease in his forties just a few years ago, took the art of watercolour to unprecedented levels. Sad though his passing was, I’m happy to say that the Roberts Gallery has hung a special show of his work upstairs, in conjunction with the CSPWC show. (He was one of the society’s most distinguished members.) Climb those stairs and succumb to a spell cast by a delicacy and a taste for beauty seldom surpassed in the art of watercolour.

 

Black Swan Green (Novel) by David Mitchell, 2006

It appears that our less-than-ecstatic response to David Mitchell’s celebrated Cloud Atlas, a Man Booker prize finalist, didn’t hurt his career much. (See Dilettante’s Diary review, Feb 4/05.) Witness the fact that the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel gave Mr. Mitchell the celebrity treatment on Radio One’s "Writers and Company" with regard to his recent novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. That book also brought on a long and respectful consideration of Mr. Mitchell’s writing by the esteemed literary critic James Wood in The New Yorker. And I understand comparable attention has been paid by The New York Times. So Mr. Mitchell will likely survive a note of slight demurral from this department.

Not that there isn’t much to like in Black Swan Green, a novel about Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old living in a small town in Worcestershire in the early 1980s. Mr. Mitchell readily admits the book’s autobiographical aspects, most noticeably in the circumstance of young Jason’s having a severe stammer, as did Mr. Mitchell when younger. Jason’s struggle with that disability is conveyed very believably. You feel the anguish of his inability to spew out words the way he’d like to, the inconvenience of his having to formulate sentences in such a way as to avoid the linguistic pitfalls lying in wait for him.

Mind you, it can take a while to get used to Jason’s first-person narration, because Mr. Mitchell has tried to capture a kid's slangy way of speaking with many elisions. "Just six months ago Julia saying that’d’ve mortified me, but my sister’d asked it seriously." (sic) Once you catch the rhythm, though, young Jason’s voice rings true in conveying many facets of his character. Such as his ambivalence about sex. He feels strong erotic attraction to girls but the thought of actual sexual intercourse daunts him. Also in the intimate part of Jason's life, there's his poetry-writing. He publishes it in the parish paper under a pseudonym, in the full knowledge that to be recognized as a poet would obliterate any chance of his being accepted by his peers. For much the same reason, he avoids anything – even a word like ‘beautiful’ – that might be taken as sounding gay in that culture.

Despite his hang-ups about such issues, our Jason gets off some insightful zingers from time to time. For instance, his observation that talking with certain sophisticated adults is like "moving up higher screens of a computer game." He has a poet’s sharp eye for natural phenomena too: "A robin landed on the holly bush, as if posing for a Christmas card." And this brilliant evocation of a swan landing:

Just before impact, the giant bird splayed open its wings and its webby feet pedaloed cartoonishly. It hung there, then crashed in a bellyflop of water. Ducks heckled the swan, but a swan only notices what it wishes to. She bent and unbent her neck exactly how Dad does after a very long drive.

Given such marvellous writing, what’s to complain about? Well, the book’s structure, for one thing. There isn’t much forward momentum. It’s all very episodic. The danger is that, if there’s nothing much pulling you from one episode to the next, you’re tempted to skip the ones that you find less interesting. For instance, Jason’s encounters with an eccentric older woman who lectures him about poetry are fascinating (if a bit far-fetched) but the constant recurrence of bullying by his school mates gets tiresome.

Which raises a more serious objection to the book – its negativity. The meanness of the other boys stretches credulity. Poor Jason’s hounded mercilessly just because his mates saw him attending a movie with his mother. Did such a social faux pas really deserve the punishment inflicted? When I was a kid, there was always some bullying going around but it was never as vicious as what’s depicted here. Granted, I didn’t grow up in Britain in the 1980s and I’m willing to admit it might have been worse for Jason than what I witnessed, but what’s presented here doesn’t convince me.

Same with the dreariness of Jason’s take on most people, especially adults. Nearly all his teachers excel at spewing verbose sarcasm. As for his parents, every exchange between them, even when superficial politeness prevails, is mined with hidden barbs. There’s never any joy or any spontaneous pleasure on the home front. When relatives come to visit, it’s all fake nicey-nice-ness on the part of the adults, and cutthroat one-upmanship among the kids. Jason’s big sister Julia treats him with explicit contempt, which seems surprising in the case of a sister who is five years older than her brother. (The good thing about Julia’s presence in the novel, though, is that it provides at least one left-wing voice to take issue with the Thatcherites who comprise the bulk of the townspeople.)

Many other aspects of the book make me wonder about the reasons for Mr. Mitchell’s great reputation. Occasionally, you get the feeling that you’re reading set pieces. Take the comic monologue of a kooky lady that Jason encounters in a store. You admire the clever writing but the passage doesn’t contribute anything to the forward movement of the chapter. Some of the teachers’ diatribes have the same feel of show pieces. Also, some of the plotting looks contrived. How does Jason finally learn the reason for the trouble with his parents? Does some likely person such as his older sister explain it to him? No. He gets the facts by the implausible device of overhearing two women in a store gossiping about his parents. Another example of stagey plotting: Just after a town meeting in which everybody assails a plan to provide living space for gypsies, Jason encounters some gypsies and discovers that they’re nice people. Come to think of it, why would Jason’s father have taken him to the acrimonious town meeting about the gypsies? In any case, the way Mr. Mitchell makes them talk sounds unbearably corny.

The novel struck me as so unsatisfactory in some ways that I began trying to think of relevant comparisons. Of course, novels based on their authors’ childhoods would, if placed end-to-end, wrap the CN tower like a decorative chain on a Christmas tree. One such novel that resembles Black Swan Green in some important ways would be Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit. That presents a picture of home life that’s even more negative than Jason’s, but it’s enlivened with a zest for life, an angry defiance utterly lacking in Jason’s story.

However, the work that kept coming to mind while reading Black Swan Green was Cider With Rosie (published in the US as The Edge of Day), Laurie Lee’s evocative memoir of his boyhood in a rural setting in the west of England. A poet himself, Mr. Lee conveys a sensitivity to his surroundings much like Jason’s. Except that every line in Cider With Rosie brims with the exhilaration of experiencing life in this world. So it startled me to find Mr. Mitchell referring to that book in the context of Jason’s story, not once but twice. We’re told that Jason had to read the book in school. (Never mind the fact that some erotic stuff in it would make it highly dubious classroom reading in North America; maybe British standards are more liberal in that regard.) But it strikes me as an odd choice on the part of an author to cite, possibly as a model or a precedent that he wants us to note, a book that so effectively shows up the shortcomings of his own.

Despite the gloomy atmosphere throughout, Black Swan Green ends with what could be called a bittersweet resolution of Jason’s problems. The good feeling that finally comes through reminded me a lot of Eugene O’Neill’s humanistic take on family life in Ah! Wilderness. While there's nothing surprising about the bitter aspect of the final plot developments in Black Swan Green, you welcome the fact that Mr. Mitchell allows that maybe some things work out ok.

And yet, given the tenor of the book over all, you can’t help wondering whether he’s just pandering to the expectations of jejune readers. Does he ultimately win me over? Maybe my skipping many passages towards the end of the book tells the tale.

 

The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice (Biography) by Christopher Hitchens, 1995

You could say the devil made me do it. Otherwise, why look up this fifteen-year-old diatribe against one of the few putative saints our contemporary world can claim?

Well, there could be some reasons other than satanic compulsion. For instance, the fact that author Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great (2007) has become one of the sacred texts of the current anti-religion campaign. And then there’s the fact that, since the publication of Mr. Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22 this summer, along with the announcement of his diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, he’s been in the news almost every day.

Meanwhile, the cause for canonization of the little nun from India rushes ahead with unprecedented speed. So what’s the worst that the devil’s advocate – one who has even been recognized as such by the Vatican – can throw at her?

Fear not. No need to rush out and buy a shield to protect you from fire and brimstone. Quite simply, the book doesn’t doesn’t live up to the cover blurb from the esteemed John Waters: "Hilariously mean." Nothing in it comes close to being hilarity-inducing; if it’s meanness you crave, you’d better look to one of those Hollywood gossip hounds on the web. This little book, only 98 pages, sets for itself the intellectually respectable goal of judging Mother Theresa's reputation by her works rather than, as the general public seems to do, judging her works by her reputation. It's all done in the expected Hitchens style: witty, extremely articulate and mentally agile. While that title hints at a certain mischievous intent, the argument mostly evolves in the high-minded, sophisticated style of the formal debate.

Without in any way downplaying Mr. Hitchen’s valid arguments against the adulation of Mother Theresa, one could say that perhaps it all comes down to whether or not you hate religion. It’s pretty clear where Mr. Hitchens stands on that issue. Hence, his scorn for her giving priority to the spiritual welfare of her patients over their physical well being, especially when it involves baptizing them surreptitiously. Mr. Hitchens admits to finding Mother Theresa’s Calcutta orphanage and the work done there affecting and charming, but his good feeling turns sour when Mother Theresa’s comments indicate that she sees her charitable efforts as a means of propagating the Roman Catholic Church’s policies against birth control and abortion. Not such a terrible goal in itself, perhaps, except for her typically Catholic insistence that these standards be imposed on everybody.

A person like Mr. Hitchens, not notably enthusiastic about other-worldly ideals, could hardly be expected to appreciate concepts like evangelical poverty. Hence his horror at the way Mother Theresa’s sisters stripped bare a well-appointed convent they were given in San Francisco. But some of Mr. Hitchen’s criticisms of Mother Theresa’s modus operandi do raise serious concerns. It seems that, in 1995, the medical care in her institutions fell far below an acceptable standard (although perhaps routines have since been improved). Nurses thought they were sterilizing needles by washing them under taps. Pain medication was nowhere near sufficient in many cases. In a San Francisco hostel for homeless AIDS patients, the men weren’t allowed any alcohol, cigarettes, tv or visits from friends. A plan for a home for the poor and sick in the Bronx fell through because Mother Theresa balked at the civically mandated elevator for the handicapped. The press pounced on this as bureaucracy’s failure to set aside its politically correct regulations. Mr. Hitchens see it as the failure of the stubborn boss lady to set aside so-called values that actually made things worse for her supposed charges.

As he points out, all the prize money showered on Mother Theresa, not to mention the millions in private donations, could build a state-of-the art hospital in Calcutta. So why this insistence on a grass-roots style of "simplicity" when it only leads to more suffering? Mr. Hitchens has little patience with an "affectation of poverty" that has such consequences.

Another of Mr. Hitchen’s objections to Mother Theresa is her association with many of the wrong people – starting with Malcolm Muggeridge, whose documentary Something Beautiful for God got the Mother Theresa ball rolling internationally. Granted, Mr. Muggeridge was a sentimental twit who, for the sake of a good story, liked to pass himself off as a skeptical curmudgeon only gradually won over by the little nun’s saintliness. His breathless claim about the miraculous lighting in certain scenes of his documentary turns out, in an explanation by the photographer, to be complete bunk. Ok, Mother Theresa’s great promoter was a poseur but is that any reason to reject her?

Somewhat more disturbing are the woman’s connections with more dubious influences – like the Duvalier regime in Haiti, which she lauded to the skies. She claimed to be innocent of political wiles, yet she rushed to post-Franco Spain to whip up support for right-wing opposition to liberalizing laws on divorce, abortion and birth control. Mr. Hitchens sees Mother Theresa’s response to the tragedy of the chemical explosion in Bhopal –FORGIVE! – as "a hasty exercise in damage control, the expedient containment of righteous secular indignation." All the while claiming political naivete, she scored a private interview with Margaret Thatcher to argue against the liberalizing of Britain’s abortion laws. She cheered Ronald Reagan for his leadership and especially his charity to the people of Ethopia, at the very time when his government was demonstrably undermining human rights in that country by supporting the ruling junta (not to mention the White House’s interference in a similar spirit in Central America). She accepted millions from the crooked financier Charles Keating and when it was pointed out to her that that money, along with much more, had been stolen from ordinary people, Mother Theresa did not, as far as was known at the date of this book’s publication, make any effort to return the ill-gotten gains bestowed on her.

And it would seem that there’s no public accounting for that donation or any others. As far as one can tell, it all disappears into the secrecy of Mother Theresa’s organization. Which leads to one of Mr. Hitchens’ most telling points: that people tend to throw money at somebody like Mother Theresa in order to buy a kind of redemption or peace of mind for themselves. As he puts it, "the great white hope meets the black hole". His contention is that we don’t really care how our money is spent or what it accomplishes. Society produces for itself icons like Mother Theresa because it needs them to feel better about itself, whether or not these heroes benefit humanity in any tangible way.

So let's set aside the question of her efficacy in relieving world-wide suffering. What about the essence of the woman? Has she earned canonization on the merits of her sterling soul? Well, a given member of the public may or may not find her simplistic piety inspiring. One thing that seems to gall Mr. Hithchens particularly is her apparent conviction that she has a direct line to God. Not, perhaps, the finest example of saintly humility. What his book demonstrates most vividly to me is that, when you’re dealing with humans, there are always many ways of interpreting what’s going on. That’s what makes life here on earth interesting, as opposed to, say, the realms where the saints (Mother Theresa included?) have all the answers.

 

The Hot Kid (Crime) by Elmore Leonard, 2005

Given that Elmore Leonard’s forty-plus books include some of the classics of contemporary crime fiction (Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, et al), you’d think any work of his would be worth a look. Not so.

Here we have Carlos Webster, a mixed race kid in Oklahoma in the 1920's, who shows considerable cojones in the way he responds to a killing he witnesses. So he grows up to be a US marshall of notable integrity and prowess. While his character is interesting, the variety of plots he gets involved in don’t hold together as a novel. You keep meeting new gangsters and having to plough through reams of back story about them. A couple of gangster molls are practically indistinguishable from each other, in that they both take their main enjoyment in life from spinning yarns to journalists. One of these dames wants to be seen as the love interest of the infamous Pretty Boy Floyd. She’s related to our hero by marriage but many of the complicated connections of the characters from the different episodes are much harder to discern.

Mr. Leonard summons the atmosphere of the times, with references to cultural markers like Will Rogers, Amos ‘n Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen. We get the gushing of new-found oil wells and the machinations of the Ku Klux Klan. But setting doesn’t make a novel. I gave up after 175 pages that felt like the production of a writer who no longer has a passionate impulse to sustain a book, so he’s trying to make one from disparate bits and pieces scrounged from the headlines of old newspapers.

 

mile Nelligan – Follow-up to Feb 21/05 review

The other day, I received an email from Michel Basilieres, author of a radio play about Quebec poet mile Nelligan reviewed here some time ago. (See Dilettante’s Diary, page headed Feb 21/05.) The review asked why the play hadn’t mentioned M. Nelligan’s homosexuality. That seemed a glaring omission, since I’d always understood that his being gay was the main reason for his being consigned to the insane asylum where he died after being held for many years.

Where, M. Basilieres wanted to know, had I heard about M. Nelligan’s homosexuality? That put me on the spot! I’ve known about M. Nelligan for so many years now that it’s hard to say when or where I learned about that aspect of his character. So I did a quick Internet search and found several mentions of it. Some sites specializing in gay literature take it as a given that M. Nelligan can be included among gay Canadian writers. Other sites aren’t so sure. One site insists that there’s no documentary evidence as to the writer’s sexuality – not surprisingly, given that, in the early 20th century, such things weren’t usually discussed publically.

It appears, then, that I can’t claim that his homosexuality was the main reason for M. Nelligan’s asylum sentence. The more obvious cause was that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Thanks to M. Basilieres for prompting me to arrive at this clarification.

 

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