Dilettante's Diary

July 28, 2011

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Macbeth (Play); Tigerlily's Orchids (Mystery); The Troubled Man (Mystery); New Yorker pieces from Julian Barnes, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGuane, Ramona Ausubel and Said Sayrafiezadeh

Macbeth (Play) by William Shakespeare; directed by Jeremy Smith; Driftwood Theatre; Wychwood Park, Toronto; July 27. (Tour continues until August 14) www.driftwoodtheatre.com 905-576-2396

This is the third summer Shakespeare production that we’ve seen by Driftwood Theatre, a group we have a personal connection with. (For a review of Driftwood’s Twelfth Night last summer, see Dilettante’s Diary page dated July 16/10.) At first, the setting of Wychwood Park, just off the Danforth, near Pape, didn’t strike us as having quite the enchantment of the Toronto settings in previous years. The park is a large, flat rectangle of burned grass, surrounded by houses. But, as the evening wore on, the venue exerted its own charm. The graceful tops of the willow trees against the fading light of the sky made an elegant background for the highflown language of the actors as you were looking up at them on their platform. And, when darkness descended, the lighting (by Liz Maraston) worked another kind magic, enclosing you in a world utterly separate from the city beyond.

Director Jeremy Smith’s creativity also did a lot to cast a spell with this version of the classic "Scottish" play. It’s been cut and adapted somewhat, for a cast of just eight actors, but none of the cuts is very noticeable. One of Mr. Smith’s most creative touches is his way of using the witches. Garbed in long, drab rags, topped by gas masks (costumes designed by Michelle Bailey), they give the proceedings something of a post-apocalyptic aura. Frequently, the witches hover on the edge of the action, helping to emphasize the ominous implications. Sometimes, they carry around bodies wrapped in cloth, one of which might turn out to be a character in the play. At other times, the witches fall into a huddle and one of them would emerge as, say Banquo – who, in this production, turns out to be a woman. That doesn’t seem implausible, given the vaguely futuristic look of the production, with some of the actors dressed like guerilla warriors, bandanas on their heads. One can imagine that, in such a world, a woman might rise to prominence as Macbeth’s peer.

All the actors, without exception, deliver the text beautifully. The emphasis is mostly on what could be called a declamatory style. Perhaps that’s required in the outdoor setting, but it means that sometimes the emotional content of the speeches comes across more than the sense of the words. As Macbeth, Peter Van Gestel gives us a searing picture of a man torn apart by inner conflicts that are ultimately driving him mad. Janick Hebert boils over with the requisite passion and vehemence as his consort. To name just a few of the other excellent cast members: Madeleine Donohue nobly manages the tricky presentation of Banquo as a woman; Andy Pogson as Macduff, strikes me as one of the most natural and charismatic performers; and Justin Goodhand makes an effective transition from lacklustre princeling to genuine leader.

All this fine acting is amply supported by an evocative soundscape (by Christopher Stanton) featuring things like throbbing heartbeats and eery cries. The simple setting (by Lindsay Anne Black) , a revolving platform with just the barest suggestion of something like a castle or a fortress, shows how little is needed in the way of decor when actors can establish the scene changes through their words. In these outdoor settings, of course, they have to contend with inevitable distractions: planes overhead, car horns. But none of them at last night's performance was as obtrusive as the extraneous sounds at Todmorden Mills last summer. The only untoward incident this time occurred when Macduff let out a howl of anguish at the horrible news about his family, and a frightened dog at the back of the crowd responded with barking. In spite of some tittering in the audience, the actors carried on, unperturbed. After all, Shakespeare’s company probably had to deal with the same kinds of disturbances from the pit at the Globe.

There will be three more performances at Withrow Park: tonight, July 28th, and on August 13th and 14th; all performances at 7:30 pm. For a complete schedule of the tour, go to www.driftwoodtheatre.com  Click on "The Bard’s Bus Tour". Or call: 905-576-2396


Tigerlily’s Orchids (Mystery) Ruth Rendell, 2010

Now that Ruth Rendell, one of the reigning queens of British crime fiction, is in her eighties, the question arises as to whether she’s still able to turn out crime fiction at the top of her game. Some of her recent efforts have been iffy. (See reviews on Dilettante’s Diary pages: "Summer Mysteries 2009", Sept 5/08, May 21/07 and "Summer Mysteries 2007".) This latest effort gives further cause for concern.

Maybe the way to appreciate the book is not to think of it as falling into the mystery/crime genre. (Except how else can you think of a Ruth Rendell?) What we have is a motley collection of people living in a block of flats somewhere in the outer reaches of London’s suburbs; some neighbours across the road round out the cast. They’re all a bunch of losers. The inhabitants of the block of flats include an elderly woman who has decided, after two marriages, to finally do what she’s wanted to do all her life: drink herself to death on gin. A young doctor who writes medical columns for a newspaper keeps making serious errors in his pieces. A handsome young guy, who is unbearably conceited about his looks and who’s having an affair with a married woman he doesn’t much care for, falls into an infatuation with an Asian woman he doesn’t even know. A lonely, overweight young woman who lives in the same building, pampers the aforementioned jerk, doing his cleaning and laundry, in the hopes of earning his affection. A couple of latter-day hippies, now dedicated vegetarians, teatotallers and alternative medicine freaks, read their fortunes by consulting Milton’s Paradise Lost. A creepy janitor and his sexually provocative wife seem to despise each other. A widower who lives in a rambling house across the street and who has nothing else to do keeps an eye on all the comings and goings from the flats. Some Asians living next door to him pass by in mysterious and uncommunicative ways.

It seems that the author doesn’t like any of these people; they’re jerked around like puppets on strings. When the adulterous wife’s husband lays into the handsome lover boy with a cudgel – not once but twice – the effect is ludicrous. Is this, then, supposed to be one of those comedies somewhat in the vein of one of Muriel Spark’s little gems? Maybe, except that it lacks Ms. Spark’s distinctive wit and deadly satire. In so far as Tigerlily’s Orchids does fit into Ms. Rendell’s oeuvre, there are hints of criminal goings on. We do eventually get a murder – about two-thirds of the way through the book. We ultimately find out who did it – and that’s a surprise – but, as far as I can tell, there’s no apparent motive, other than, possibly, a very trivial one.

For lack of any thrills along that line, the book could be said to offer some interesting observations on the way people in a neighbourhood interact and how they think about each other in their private moments. But I’m guessing this book would never have been published if the manuscript had arrived on an editor’s desk without the name of Ruth Rendell as author. But that’s a moot point, isn’t it? In any case, you could say that, by this point in her career, Ms. Rendell has earned the right to publish anything she likes – whether or not we do.


The Troubled Man (Mystery) by Henning Mankell, 2009 (English translation by Laurie Thompson, 2011)

In this outing, our police detective Kurt Wallander gets embroiled in international intrigue through a rather unusual link – the arrival of a grandchild in his life. Wallander’s daughter, Linda, is going to have a baby, and her partner’s father turns out to be a retired Swedish submarine commander. In confidential talks, the man tells Wallander about some shady business that went down back in the 1980s regarding Russian submarines in Swedish waters. Something about the incident still worries him, hence the book’s title.

The ramifications of this Cold War imbroglio make it feel at times as though we’ve wandered into John Le Carr territory. Without Mr. Le Carr as guide, however, the going isn’t as thrilling as it would be in one of his books. I found Mr. Mankell’s handling of politics and world issues not especially gripping. He’s better on the personal stuff: people disappear, people are found dead, Wallander finds out about them by poking into their past lives, interviewing their friends and family members.

Good as he is at all that, it would appear, given the book's ending, that this is Wallander’s final appearance. I find him more "accessible", more "reader-friendly" here than in some of Mr. Mankell’s previous mysteries. (See reviews of two of them on Dilettante’s Diary pages dated Summer Mysteries 07, and Sept 26/08.) Maybe it’s an effect of Wallander’s mellowing but he’s not so rigorously obsessive and intense here. It's a bit much, however, that he’s constantly bemoaning his elderly state. The guy’s only sixty, for heaven’s sake! But he does have forgetful periods, whereby Mr. Mankell is apparently trying to indicate something like early-onset Alzheimers. Which imparts a kind of elegiac quality to the proceedings, most notably in Wallander's reunion with an old girlfriend who is dying. No doubt this sort of thing strikes a poignant note for readers who have followed him through all ten novels. Less dedicated fans might not be so moved.

But they, apparently, are in the minority. Many people, finding Wallander one of the best detectives ever, consider his creator one of the top mystery writers in the business. My enthusiasm for Mr. Mankell's work is decidedly more muted. In keeping with Wallander’s character, The Troubled Man is rather plodding. (Never mind that the big surprise at the end isn’t much of one.) You simply have to accept that there’s not a hint of any leavening humour either in the character of the author. Still, the ambiance is pleasant, in that Wallander has moved to a lonely house on a cliff overlooking the sea. That makes for lots of picture postcard scenes.

And the book’s blessedly free of many of the flaws of popular mystery writing. (Very few autonomic responses, for example.) But I find some narrative tics annoying. Repetition, for one. Practically every other scene includes some reference to thunder and rain. Is Sweden actually that wet? Not according to the tourist brochures that come my way. And then there are the constant references to Wallander’s falling asleep. The man dozes off any time he sits down without having a specific task to accomplish. Is that what life’s like for some people? Lucky them!

But the more troublesome recurring device is the reference to Wallander’s hunches and premonitions. You know the kind of thing: "He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he felt sure that something didn’t add up." (Not an exact quote.) I counted fifteen of these references. Granted, we all have those hunches at times and occasionally they turn out to be accurate predictors of what happens. So what’s wrong with a detective’s having them? The problem is that when they pop up so often, they become too obvious a literary device. They show the writer hard at work. That means I’m less caught up in the story. And what’s a mystery for, if not story?


More Catching Up With The NEW YORKER: You can usually take it for granted that New Yorker fiction will be worth reading, but here are some stand-outs from recent issues:

Homage to Hemingway (Short Fiction) by Julian Barnes (Issue of July 4, 2011)

Years ago, I read some of Julian Barnes’ fiction (Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England, for example) but it didn’t make a strong enough impression on me to remember any of it very clearly. More recently, his opus on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, irritated me, for the most part. (See review on DD page dated Feb 7/11.) As for this recent New Yorker short story, it reads well. It tells about a novelist’s experiences with writing groups that he coaches. But it didn’t have any great impact on me – not at first, that is. In retrospect, though, the story turns out to have more resonance. There’s something very generous about the way Mr. Barnes lays bare the inner life of the writer and shows that the cupboard is, if not completely bare, rather sparsely supplied. He shows how the attempts to connect with his students, to make the most of his celebrity, his opportunities, are inchoate and unsatisfying. What’s even more intriguing is his suggestion that somehow this ill-defined aspect of life is related to our yearning to construct narratives, to create stories where there aren’t any.


The Years of My Birth (Short Fiction) by Louise Erdrich (January 10, 2011)

At the opening of this story, our first-person narrator hits us in the face with the fact of her arrival in this world as an unexpected twin with a congenital deformity. She wasn’t supposed to live more than a moment or two. But she did. Having been rejected by her birth mother, she was taken in by a kindly aboriginal woman who was a night janitor at the hospital. You might think that this would make for a heart-warming story about triumphing over difficult odds. But author Erdrich has something else in mind. What matters is an encounter the narrator has later in life that sheds new light on some of the darker corners of human interaction.


The Good Samaritan (Short Fiction) by Thomas McGuane (April 25, 2011)

What I like about this story is the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. It tells about a good old-boy, a rancher (actually he’s a businessman but his heart is on the land where he raises high quality hay for racehorses). You can see this man’s-man in so many Westerns (and, once upon a time, in cigarette commercials). But he’s preoccupied with stuff you don’t usually connect with this kind of guy. There’s his son whom he’s visiting in prison, but mostly there’s his stubborn mom, living on her own and smoking and worrying him about a friendship she’s developing with the handyman he recently hired.


Atria (Short Fiction) by Ramona Ausubel (April 1, 2011)

This story captures perfectly the mood of a disaffected, unpopular teenager whose relationship with her mom is chippy, at best. The girl, in a diffident way, gets herself into a situation that develops into a crisis not just for her and her mom but for the whole community. In the process, some of the deepest things about being human are touched on in a glancing way, hinted at, but never explained.


Paranoia (Short Fiction) by Said Sayrafiezadeh (February 28, 2011)

Our narrator, Dean, a Caucasian male about twenty-years old, has struck up a friendship with Roberto, an illegal immigrant from Chile who’s a few years older than Dean and living very much on the edge. It’s a really hot summer in the city and everybody’s talking about the coming war (Iraq, I presume). What seems to make the most sense to Roberto and some other guys we encounter is weight-lifting and body-building. There’s an almost unbearable poignancy about sharing Dean’s strange friendship with Roberto, feeling the bleakness Dean feels (but never states) at the hopelessness of his friend’s situation.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com