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Winter Reading 2013

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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Winter Reading 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Reviewed here:

  • When God Was A Rabbit
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog
  • Talking About Detective Fiction
  • Thinking Fast and Slow
  • Stagestruck
  • Dark Places
  • Sharp Objects
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
  • Quiet
  • The Fifth Witness
  • Singing in the Shrouds
  • Stay Close
  • The Child's Child
  • In One Person

When God Was A Rabbit (Novel) by Sarah Winman, 2011

When this book, the winner of many awards, was recommended to me, my impression was that it was going to be a hilarious memoir. Not long into my reading, I began to have doubts on both counts. True, there are some amusing passages, but not much laugh-out-loud content. What troubled me more were the implausible scenes that kept cropping up. How could these things have actually happened? Then I noticed the standard disclaimer in the front pages: "All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons......etc."

Ok, fine. We’re dealing with a novel, not memoir.

It’s narrated by Elly, a young woman, who tells about growing up in England in the 1970s with an older brother who is gay. The brother, Joe, is about five years older than Elly and they enjoy an affectionate and companionable relationship. The book’s title comes from the fact that Elly has a rabbit whom she has named God; now and then, the rabbit speaks words of wisdom to her. The children’s parents are kind and loving, although the ambiance of the home is a bit daffy. The dad always seems to be dreaming up goofy schemes. For a brief time, the parents have a trial separation and Elly makes much of the supposed break-up of her family to get away with a lot at school. There’s a threat of tragedy when the mom heads to hospital for a biopsy of a possible cancer. Elly describes the farewell scene with great poignancy but the mom bounces back in better health than ever.

I’m not sure that it’s ever specified where the family lives in the first part of the book, but it’s obviously a town or city of some kind. The writing picks up when the family moves to a big old house by the sea in Cornwall. There, the parents conduct a bed-and-breakfast operation. You have a feeling that this author is at her best writing about the glories of nature, as discovered by the brother and sister who are free to ramble to their heart’s content in this setting.

Some nice touches in the writing include this comment about the mom’s developing a friendship with an older man: "She missed living her life with somebody older advancing ahead; somebody to shield her from the mortal wall that drew closer every season; someone simply to tell her that she would be all right." A scene that I found very touching was Elly’s joyous reunion at the train station with Joe when he arrives home from boarding school for the holidays. An ageing friend, a performer, says that the reason she’s giving Elly an antique ring is that she, the perfomer, is too fat to get it on her finger anymore. Elly notes in brackets: Translation: I love you and would like you to have something that’s very dear to me. Describing the way in which her brother had become enigmatic as an adult, she says that his life had become "....a puzzle that made him phone me at three o’clock in the morning, asking me for the last piece of the border, so he could fill in the sky." After watching an elderly man holding the hand of an old friend who is dying of cancer:

I left them and headed towards the stairs, and as I walked down I was overwhelmed with the gratitude of wellness. I walked out and breathed fresh air. I felt the sun on my skin. The world is a different place when you are well, when you are young. The world is beautiful and safe. I said hello to the gatekeeper. He said hello back to me.

In spite of these virtues of the writing, the problem that bothered me in the beginning – the unbelievability of some of the material – continued throughout the book. A lot of the scenes are too silly. Not that I’m against silly. I love P.G. Wodehouse. But the nonsense has to be served up with a certain savoir faire. What you get here is ridiculous.

  • A Christmas theatrical effort turns out to be the archetypical fiasco of nativity plays.
  • What’s worse, the production appears to cause – astonishingly – the death of one of the actors. And yet this is treated as comedy.
  • The town tart makes a ridiculous spectacle of herself at a street party for the Queen’s silver jubilee.
  • The menfolk make asses of themselves over the tart.
  • A woman sneaks Elly and her friend into the funeral of a baby. This is presented as some kind of lark.
  • The author comes up with the not-very-clever device of bringing one scene to a resounding conclusion with a fart.

Through much of this, I had the feeling of reading work like Maeve Binchey’s. Mind you, I’ve only tried one. I had to give up on it because I found the comedy too easy. The author isn’t willing to work hard enough to amuse me. Any old thing is thrown into the mix in the hopes that it will make me laugh. Same with this book. I need something clever and unexpected, something original, to tickle my funny bone. Not pratfalls and slapstick that anybody can dream up.

Then there are the problems with stuff that we’re supposed to find charmingly quixotic. For example, the dad’s sister, who is a lesbian, wrote love poems on his behalf to his future wife, i.e. the narrator’s mother, but the dad never knew about the poems. We’re supposed to believe that such a preposterous thing could happen, that the recipient of the poems would never mention them to the supposed poet? It makes you seriously doubt Elly when she says, about an older man’s spinning yarns: "I always knew the difference between truth and fiction."

Many instances of purple prose and laborious writing include:

  • "....I felt relieved that the fragility of expectation that had hung over us during the last eighteen months had finally turned into the decisiveness of action."
  • "...the oldest trees leant towards each other and formed a dome, where the energy beneath hovered with the potency of a million words of prayer."
  • At a christening: "After a monotonous reading about the responsibilities of parenthood, the message of which, thank God, must have bypassed my own parents with the temerity of a stolen car...." (How on earth could a stolen car have temerity???)
  • "....I was running towards the blackness, into oblivion where nothing existed that night except the call of owls and the flight of midges and the ghosts of planes landing, their stuttering engines reaching for land in the bleakest of silence."

You begin to wish that this author had heard the valuable reminder that "less is more." Nevertheless, I did finish this book, hoping that the touches of good writing earlier on would lead to some kind of satisfaction. The author does manage to make your heart ache, along with the narrator’s, as she watches her brother suffer through his first doomed love affair, then his struggle to find his place in the gay world. A secondary, and engaging, plot has to do with the peculiar developments in the life of the very odd woman who was the narrator’s only true friend in school.

However, the book ends on a long emotional binge that isn’t earned. It has to do with a notorious real-life tragedy that you can see coming many pages beforehand. After leading you to expect the worst, and after several pages of maudlin moping, the author pulls back and offers a kind of redemption. In terms of bloated plot and emotional excess the book is almost Dickensian. Elly lets fly with paragraphs (about a page in total) of the kind of verbal rage that you only find in indulgent writing, not in reality. Some explicit passages about sex – one regarding an older man’s erectile difficulties and another about an anonymous coupling between the author and a stranger – are quite jarring. Not that I’m a prude about that sort of thing but it just doesn’t fit in a book like this. It’s as though the author is trying to cram everything into her novel.

My impression is that this is her first. For the next one, let’s hope that she has a clearer idea of what to include and exclude, and of the tone she wants to sustain.

 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Novel) by Muriel Barbery, 2006; English translation by Alison Anderson, 2008

This wildly successful novel – an international phenomenon, you might say – features two narrators. The main one is Rene, a middle-aged concierge of an upscale apartment building in Paris; the other is Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her family in the building.

The concierge, a widow, makes it clear that she’s ugly; in no way does her physicality challenge the image of the typically unimpressive concierge. But, she happens to be an intelligent autodidact. Having left school at age seventeen to marry, she has kept reading voraciously, devouring books that most people wouldn’t encounter except in university courses. Rene’s conversant with, among many other subjects, phenomenology, evolution, the role of art in society, and high-brow Japanese movies. However, she keeps her intellectual life private. She’s careful not to give any sign that she’s anything other than what the upper classes expect from their concierge. When some toff uses a big word that she understands perfectly well, she pretends to be baffled. Her procedure for answering her door is to make sure that she shuffles in her old slippers and she keeps a tv blaring in the front room when she’s secreted in her back room poring over her beloved books.

The twelve-year-old girl, Paloma, is so smart that she makes Anne Frank look like a doofus. Paloma has decided life is a meaningless farce. Adults, she has learned, lie to kids to make them think there’s a purpose to life. When the kids get old enough to find out that any supposed meaning is a lie, they pass the lie on to their own kids. She has, therefore, decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. For that purpose, she’s been saving up sleeping pills from her mother’s stash.

Part way into the book, a cultivated, kind, very rich – and unmarried – Japanese gentleman moves into the building. He becomes friends with Paloma. They both begin to suspect that there’s something special about Rene. She might even, says Paloma, be something like a hedgehog, i.e. an animal who, although prickly and lumpy on the outside, could be refined on the inside. You can probably guess some of the directions in which this budding appreciation of Rene is leading...

There are some lovely passages in this story – like the one in which Rene tells about the time in elementary school when a teacher took a particular interest in her. Until then, Rene hadn’t felt as if she had a real self. But this teacher made Rene feel like a unique and worthwhile individual. That sparked her life-long love of learning. Another remarkable section is the one where Rene tells about how her prospective husband proposed to her. He convinced her that he wanted a woman who wasn’t a vain, self-centred beauty, but one who was loyal and true.

You can see why this book has been such a success. It’s an easy read; it involves interesting and unusual characters. It’s full of life-affirming messages and fascinating observations. For instance, young Paloma notices that her father "constructs" his character each morning as he sips his coffee while reading the paper and preparing to face his day. In fact, Paloma would be a good match for Jean Paul Sartre when it comes to debates about self and identity:

We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.

In spite of many such fascinating ingredients, the book didn’t work for me. That’s mainly because the two main characters strike me as literary conceits. The author has apparently envisioned how wonderful it would be to construct a story around two such unusual people but she has done so without a sense of human beings that’s grounded in reality. (And, in passing, it might be mentioned that not many of the various residents of the building emerge very clearly as characters; their names fly around but the reader has little sense of who they are.)

As for Rene, I could just barely believe that there could be a concierge as erudite and cultured as she, but it was very hard for me to accept that she would insist on presenting herself to the world as an unlearned oaf. Near the end of the book, you get a sort of explanation for why Rene feels people shouldn’t try to rise above their stations. The reason given didn’t manage to make her behaviour credible for me. And one aspect of Rene’s character strikes me as repugnant: her knee-jerk bias against well-to-do people. She thinks they’re insensitive and incapable of understanding any way of life except their own divinely-ordained golden path. To give just one example: Rene thinks that rich people would assume that the death of a loved one – Rene’s husband, let’s say – wouldn’t mean as much to anybody in the lower classes as the death of a loved one would to somebody in the upper classes. A hint of this kind of thinking might help to show a certain bitterness, a less savoury side, to someone who’s otherwise meant to appear quite likeable. But this attitude crops up so much in Rene’s comments that you begin to wonder how obtuse she can be.

And how on earth could any twelve-year-old be so damn precocious as Paloma? Her satirical take on adults is derisive and scathing. Already, she knows the importance of living in the present moment: "Always remember that there’s a retirement home waiting somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day." Somehow or other, she has arrived at insights into the ways that soldiers feel about order and cleanliness. She can make very sophisticated comparisons between French and Japanese cuisine. She can wax eloquent on how the beauty of choral music may save the world. Not only is she, apparently, intimately familiar with the work of Marcel Proust, she expresses some exasperation on finding that her own thoughts are a trifle too Proustian.

Besides, the convergence of the kid's and the concierge’s minds on points of culture is too contrived. For heaven’s sake, you have them both tut-tutting about grammatical abominations like misplaced commas and split infinitives. (And by the way, how do you split an infinitive in French? Or is that detail a variation on the part of the translator?) You also find Paloma echoing Rene’s prejudice against the privileged classes, Paloma’s own sector of society. If Paloma had been reined in a bit by the author, the kid might not have ended up making – unintentionally, I assume – a macabre joke worthy of Oscar Wilde. Saying that she feels sorry for a teacher who has been made to look bad in front of her class, Paloma adds: "And I don’t like lynching. It never puts anyone in a good light."

And yet, in spite of all Paloma’s high-falutin pronouncements, when she’s in an argument with her older sister, the author has Paloma offering this by way of a cop-out: "I’m still only a little girl, after all." (Thanks for the reminder, Ms. Barbery!)

After about 200 of the 325 pages, I couldn’t take any more of the author’s too obvious attempt to wow me with the incredible – literally – attributes of these characters. Skimming a few passages here and there, I skipped ahead to find that the ending is bittersweet: some gain, some loss. For people who can hang in all the way, the book no doubt provides a gratifying feeling of having experienced something artistic, charming and even intellectually stimulating. But how many people do finish a book like this? I suspect many people read some of it, decide that it’s the kind of thing that dear old so-and-so will love, then buy copies to distribute to friends who, after reading a few chapters, buy copies for other friends. And so the book becomes a bestseller. But a best-read one?

 

Talking About Detective Fiction (Essay) by P.D. James, 2009

You might not be surprised to find that P.D. James has something worthwhile to say about detective fiction. Granting, however, that Ms James is one of the two reigning queens of British detective fiction – along with Ruth Rendell – that’s no reason why her prose should read like a speech from the throne. Much of Ms James’s writing here, with its sentences that advertise their careful crafting, their smoothly flowing meticulous diction and their arch tone, capture the feel of what you’d hear from Her Majesty at the opening of parliament at Westminster.

But maybe we have to accept that that’s the way Ms James likes to express herself. Maybe we can make allowances for the fact that she’s kind of an old-fashioned gal. She was, after all, nearly ninety years old when the book was published.

It’s the result of a request that she would write a book for the benefit of the Bodleian library about British detective fiction. Fortunately, Ms James decided to broaden her scope somewhat. After a quick history of the genre, and a look at the so-called Golden Age of British fiction, i.e. the period between the two world wars, Ms James turns her attention to American detective fiction. You might not think such a genteel person as Ms James would have much truck with hard-boiled crime writing, but she lavishes praise on the works of writers like Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Dashiel Hammett. The latter, she says, "raised a commonly despised genre into writing which had a valid claim to be taken seriously as literature."

Turning back to British detective fiction, Ms James devotes a whole chapter – and a rich one – to the works of the four women writers, who, she feels, made the greatest contributions of any women to the genre at its height: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. If Ms James sounds a trifle condescending about Agatha Christie’s pat, formulaic mysteries, she tries to make up for it by a magnanimous acknowledgment of the entertainment value of the books.

But one thing is certain: Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life in both peace and war for millions throughout the world and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect.

Ms. Christie’s failing, as Ms James sees it, was that her crimes and solutions, although ingenious, were often implausible. "In Death on the Nile, for example, the murderer is required to dash round the deck of a crowded river-steamer, acting with split-second precision and depending on not being observed either by passengers or by crew." In Dumb Witness, the clue is a brooch worn on a dressing gown and glimpsed in a mirror at night. But who would wear such a brooch on a dressing gown?

Dorothy L. Sayers, says Ms James, wrote with "intelligence, wit and humour." Her mysteries introduced social realism and psychological subtlety into the genre. But the murderers’ methods were complicated and devious in ways that wouldn’t have worked in reality. It’s unlikely, for instance, that the victim in The Nine Tailors would have been killed by the clanging of bells, no matter how close and loud. In an interesting aside, Ms James notes the way that certain societal inhibitions had an effect on Ms. Sayers’ writing. One of her mysteries involves the discovery of the naked body of a man in a bathtub. The big question is whether or not this is a famous Jewish banker. The mystery might have been settled more easily had Ms. Sayers been allowed to say – which she was not, by the mores of the times – whether or not the victim was circumcised.

Margery Allingham had a great gift for portraying different settings and milieux and is credited with making the observation that a crime novel could be "a kind of reflection on society’s conscience," even though she herself merely reflected, but did not criticize the cultures in which her novels were set.

The trouble with Ngaio Marsh, Ms James says, is that she, being a New Zealander, tended to portray a mythic, idealized version of England, most notably personified in her "perfect" gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn. Ms Marsh’s better books are set in her homeland, Ms James believes. But she does say that, of the four women, Ms. Marsh is the one with the talent to produce first rate novels outside the detective genre, had she chosen to do so.

Some of the best parts of this book for me are the ones where Ms James talks about her own modus operandi. We get lots of fascinating insights into her methods and intentions. In speaking of the well-recognized principle that a writer should deal with subjects she or he knows well, Ms James cites – presumably with her endorsement – the dictum that a mystery should be "50 percent good detection, 25 percent character and 25 percent what the writer knows best." She says that, having learned her lesson from Ms. Christie and Ms. Sayers, both of whom grew very tired of the eccentricities of their chief detectives, she took great care in making Adam Dalgleish a more ordinary guy, one an author wouldn’t mind spending time with over the years.

Ms James also says that it’s usually the setting of a story that comes first to her. She gives the example of her Devices and Desires, which had its genesis when she fell under the spell of the bleak beach in East Anglia, with its view of a nuclear power station to the south.

I think it important too that the setting, which being integral to the whole novel, should be perceived though the mind of one of the characters, not merely described by the authorial voice, so that place and character interact and what the eye takes in influences the mood and the action.

Narrowing the focus to more specific details of setting, she says the description of a room in which a body is found matters a lot, in that it "can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victim’s character and interests." For that reason, Ms James considers the finding of the body as "one of the most important chapters of a detective novel."

She says that character must drive the plot, not vice versa. The ability to "fuse character with clues is one of the marks of a good detective story." Putting it another way, she says that "there must be a creative and reconciling corrrelation between plot, characterisation, setting and theme, and so far from the plot being dominant, it should arise naturally from the characters and the place."

In a discussion of the various choices regarding point of view that are available to the narrator/author in crime fiction, Ms James says: "I feel it is important....not to alter the viewpoint in any one chapter." I’m glad that one of the queens of detective fiction has ruled so decisively on this matter. It bothers me very much that writers today – I’m not talking about crime writers only – don’t seem to get the importance of this rule. Some of them don’t even seem to be aware that there might be any such issue. Not only do they shift point of view within a chapter, some do it within a paragraph. This makes for a bumpy ride for the reader. Do writers these days read so little that they don’t even realize how jarring their writing is?

One admission Ms James makes about her own writing is in answer to a frequent question from readers. They always want to know if she has adapted the characters of people she has known or met and put them into her novels. No, she says. And yet her characters are drawn from life – her own!

Of course I take my characters from real life; from where else can I take them? But the person I look to most is myself for experience endured or rejoiced in over nearly ninety years of living in this turbulent world. If I need to write about a character afflicted with such shyness that every new job, every encounter, becomes a torment, I am blessed not to suffer such misery. But I know from embarrassments and uncertainties of adolescence what such shyness can feel like and it is my job to relive it and find the words to express it.

Acknowledging the help she’s received from professionals in various fields, Ms James says she prefers to do her own research. But conscientious research doesn’t entirely rule out blunders. The trouble is, you don’t bother to research the things you think you know. In Ms James’s case, there was the early novel in which she spoke of a certain kind of motorcycle "reversing noisily down the lane." This led to extensive correspondance, mostly from male readers, pointing out that such a motorcycle could not go in reverse. But, Ms James’ vindication came years later on a postcard which said simply: "That motorbike – it can if it’s a Harley-Davidson."

Surveying the contemporary crime-writing scene, Ms James salutes the achievements of many of the big names of today: Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Sarah Paretsky, et al. Ms James notes that, although private sleuths still appear in great variety, they’re being crowded out by the professionals. But she feels we’re getting far too many examples of the detective who’s "solitary, divorced, hard-drinking, psychologically flawed and disillusioned." References to Ruth Rendell are respectful and appreciative, if not exactly enthusiastic. I’m glad that Ms James gets around to mentioning the Scandinavian school, headed by Henning Mankell. I was waiting, almost through the entire book, for the reference, that finally came, to one of the greatest writers of non-British crime fiction: Georges Simenon.

While acknowledging throughout that detective fiction may never be considered high art, Ms James ends her book with a ringing testament to the lasting value of the specimens of the genre. Citing some of the greatest works of literature, Ms James sums up:

The detective story at its best can stand in such company, and its popularity suggests that in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.

Thorough as Ms James’ investigaiton of the genre is, she never explicitly mentions some of the aspects of crime fiction that, in my view, make it so compelling. There’s the fear factor; you often have a feeling of dread lurking over the proceedings. (One time when I was home alone on a summer night, a Georges Simenon book make me run around closing windows.)

More importantly if you ask me, there’s the obsessive quality of a mystery: a writer keeps inserting little hooks that snag your mind. I’m not talking here about major suspense. That’s a big draw, of course, in most detective fiction. But what I think makes the reading most satisfying is the constant little questions that crop up on nearly every page, the things that make your mind go: Hmm, there’s an interesting point, I wonder if it will amount to anything? How will this situation work out? What does this character mean by what she’s saying? It’s as though the author’s crocheting a fabric with these little hooks and making you want to see the finished product.

Footnote: You don’t often get to say this about a book but maybe it should be said, when appropriate, given that the existence of the physical book appears to be threatened by electronic means of communication. Ms James’s little volume makes for a pleasurable sensual object. Just under two hundred small pages, with large, clear, elegant type and plenty of white space on every page, not to mention a cover that’s tastefully designed, the book looks good to the eye and feels good in the hand.

 

Thinking Fast and Slow (Psychology) by Daniel Kahneman, 2011

Given that you’re reading Dilettante’s Diary, you probably consider yourself an intelligent, sophisticated person. (And I agree.) You feel that you have your mental faculties well under control. You’re satisfied that your decision-making is rational.

Think again, says Daniel Kahneman!

According to Professor Kahneman, our minds are much less under our control than we think they are. And we’d better listen up. Professor Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002 for the work that he and his friend, Amos Tversky, did on decision-making. The gist of their prize-winning findings, as I understand it, was that people don’t make financial decisions that are the rational, logical ones predicted by traditional economic theory. Instead, our choices are very much conditioned by context, wording and our emotional reactions, especially with regard to how a proposed change in wealth relates to our current wealth, i.e. our base reference point.

This book follows along in a similar vein regarding our decision-making processes. The key to the book is Professor Kahneman’s explication of two quite different systems when it comes to making decisions: System 1 and System 2. The two systems were so named by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, but Professor Kahneman, for the purposes of explaining his findings, elevates the two systems to the status of opposing characters in a psychodrama. Not that the brain could actually house two such separate characters, but to hold in your mind an image of them as such guides you through Professor Kahneman’s findings and helps you to grasp the ways in which the brain approaches decision-making.

To put the idea most simply, System 1 makes immediate decisions, snap judgments. It’s what you might call the gut reaction. Professor Kahneman cites Danny Kaye’s line about the person whose favourite sport was "jumping to conclusions." That’s System 1. It enables us to make the quick and vital decisions in fight-or-flight situations. It’s thanks to System 1, in many ways, that our species has survived this long.

But the trouble is that we often take System 1's decision on an issue when we really should be invoking System 2. That’s the system that involves reflection and consideration, weighing evidence, considering alternatives. If you want to experience the two different systems in your own thinking, consider a couple of math problems. First: 2 x 2. System 1 comes up with your answer immediately. However, if you’re faced with the problem 27 x 34, System 2 is called into action. Obviously, System 2 should be consulted in many situations when we’re too ready to go with System 1's decision. But System 2 tends to be lazy. It often accepts the System 1 decision on a matter without further ado.

If Professor Kahneman’s book could be said to have one specific purpose, then, it would be to encourage us to learn when we need to activate System 2, to recognize the danger signs when we’re too likely to go with System 1. "The emotional tail wags the rational dog." That happens, not because people are stupid, but because they’re influenced by unknowns. He speaks of our "almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance." The ramifications reach into almost every corner of our lives: business, politics, law, finance, interpersonal relations, science, international affairs. There’s a kind of self-help tone to the book, in that Professor Kahneman is making the case that we all need to look more closely at improving our modus vivendi.

All this is conveyed in beautifully clear, accessible prose – very rare for a science book or any such learned tome – that never trips you up (well, almost never) or makes you wonder what the author’s getting at. Mind you, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself fuming from time to time about your lacklustre performance on the little mental puzzles that Professor Kahneman sets for you. Your System 1 will often carry the day when you should have had recourse to System 2. But don’t feel too bad. Professor Kahneman wants us to know, from our own experience, how easy it is to be led astray by our sneaky mental processes.

The many points that Professor Kahneman makes, and the implications thereof, are so various and multi-faceted, that it would be impossible to cite any more than a few here. So I’ll highlight some of the ones that struck me as most intriguing. (Of necessity, I’m doing a lot of paraphrasing and simplifying here, with the hope of not misconstruing anything.) All of the findings reported are based on Professor Kahneman’s own research or on the work of other psychologists, economists, neurologists and professionals in various sciences. The term "neuroeconomics" is sometimes used to describe the study. None of the claims Professor Kahneman makes are theoretical. They’re all solidly based on experiments done with human subjects. You know the kind of thing, where volunteers are recruited to perform myriad tasks and answer wide-ranging questions, the results of which exercises are analyzed to produce reliable data.

[Note: The points cited below may not necessarily appear under the same headings as the ones Professor Kahneman uses for them. In culling some of my favourite items from the book’s 400-plus pages, I’m lumping together ones that seem closely related.]

Answering the wrong question. This is one of System 1's favourite tricks. The question you’re being asked requires a serious study by System 2. But that’s too taxing. So System 1 jumps in with an answer to a question that’s much easier; it seems to settle the issue but it doesn’t. It only makes you feel that you’ve made a reasonable decision. For example: Is this electoral candidate potentially a good person to run the government of your city [province, country, etc]? To answer that one would take too much heavy lifting mentally. Instead, here’s my answer: I don’t like his hairstyle!. That settles it; I know now what I think about this guy. Except that I don’t notice that I’ve answered the wrong question.

Narrative Coherence. This is a key one for business prospects. People love to hear a story that they think makes sense, that resolves the complications of life clearly, even though life really doesn’t work that way. For example, there are the glowing success stories of innovative companies who’ve racked up astounding profits. (Think Google, Microsoft, Apple.) The stories are told in such a way that it seems as though every decision made by the founders and directors was so brilliant that it inevitably led to the big triumph. Our System 1 feels very good with that sense of order and form. But these stories leave out all the things that could so easily have gone wrong. In other words, the role of luck is edited out. System 1 doesn’t like to deal with that. The gratifying narrative doesn’t tell us that it was purely a fluke that some other whiz kids didn’t come up, at roughly the same time as the Google founders did, with more or less the same idea.

What You See Is All There Is (Often referred to by Professor Kahneman as WYSIATI) System 1 sizes up a situation on the basis of the most obvious evidence without looking any further. Sparse information gives an illusion of understanding, which makes decisions easier.

Skewed Memory Studies show that our memories of what we’ve experienced often don’t accord with what we were feeling during the experience. One study conducted by the University of Toronto in the early 1990s involved patients receiving colonoscopies. (For lack of the more effective pain-killers used now, the process was more painful then.) Patients were asked to rate their pain during the procedure, then afterwards. As became apparent from the answers, all that mattered in the memory of the experience was the peak point of the pain and the level of pain when the process ended. The duration of the pain had nothing to do with the memory of it.

Framing. Our answer to a proposition depends very much on the way it’s framed. People will forego a gain much more easily than they will accept a loss. In the early years of credit card use, merchants wanted to charge customers a fee for payment by card. The banks resisted, not surprisingly. But they had this alternative up their sleeves: they would be willing to accept that merchants could allow a discount for cash purchases. The banks knew that card users wouldn’t mind the fact that they were passing up a discount; but they’d balk at paying a surcharge.

Priming. Your choice can be influenced (if not dictated) by some apparently unrelated experience that occurs just prior to the choice. Subjects who "found" money that had been discretely left lying around by experimenters tended to give happier answers to questions about well-being. Even such a thing as the location where we find ourselves can affect our decision-making. A study of voting patterns in an Arizona election showed that support for increased funding for schools was significantly stronger when a polling station was in a school.

Availability Bias. Because we hear a lot about something, we exaggerate its prevalence. As an example of this, think of the Harper government’s emphasis on the importance of cracking down on crime, even though the occurrence of crimes is actually falling. This bias also works to the advantage of terrorists. So much fuss is made about the rare incidents that do occur that we think the threat is much greater than it is. The simple – if regrettable – fact is that repetition of a report will lead to familiarity, which tends to make us think the fact is true. A corollary: most people under-rate the potential of major environmental damage because they’ve had no experience of it.

Regression to the Mean This section echoes one of the main themes of The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow (reviewed on DD page "Summer Reading 2010"). It came as a pleasant surprise to be reminded that Professor Kahneman is the psychologist whom Mr. Mlodinow refers to in his discussion of the regression to the mean, as illustrated in Professor Kahneman’s experience with the Israeli flight instructors. Professor Kahneman points out here that it’s because of the regression to the mean that we need control groups in medical trials: to see if patients have improved more than the inevitable regression to the mean would predict. The principle also applies to the oft-cited claim: "Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are." That sounds interesting, we want to find the cause. But it’s simply a case of regression to the mean. Since there are few very intelligent people around, they usually end up with less intelligent ones.

More briefly, a grab bag of the book’s goodies about the workings of System 1 and System 2:

  • The danger of paying more attention to the content of a message than to the reliability of the source. "We hear what we want to hear."
  • Confusing plausibility with probability. Because something sounds plausible, we think it’s more probable than it is.
  • When people change their minds, they often can’t remember that they formerly held the opposite opinion.
  • People tend to reject – or refuse to take into consideration – statistics that conflict with their personal impressions.
  • A regrettable financial situation often turns into a disaster merely because a person cannot accept a loss and move on. Money will be wasted on the far-fetched chance of rescuing a dying operation.
  • "Loss aversion" complicates labour negotiations. One side’s gain is the other side’s loss but the losing side will put more weight on their loss than the other side does on their gain.
  • Because we’re more motivated to avoid loss than seek good, the long-term success of marriage means that avoiding the negative is more important than seeking the positive.

As intriguing – and convincing – as all of this is, I must admit to one question that occasionally pestered me during my reading: can we truly accept that psychological studies done in labs translate into findings about our lives in the day-to-day world? Professor Kahneman does acknowledge that some researchers criticize findings driven "by artificial experiments rather than by the study of real people doing things that matter." But it seems that any question about the validity of this kind of psychological research has been settled by the professionals and the general public long ago. So there’s no point in my digging in my heels. It’s just that I thought this personal caveat should be mentioned in the context of an honest response to the book.

Another thing that should be mentioned is terminology, particularly as related to math. And here we come to the reason for my saying earlier that Professor Kahneman’s writing almost never trips you up. At times he talks about things like "correlation coefficients." Various mathematical formulae are cited for solving conundrums. For somebody who didn’t go any further than high school math (the old school math, that is) these items can constitute stumbling blocks. Some of the graphs provided, the meanings of which are supposed to be obvious, are unreadable to me.

Something that stumps me in many parts of the book – and this is more a question of personal disposition than education – is the frequent reference to gambling, percentages, weighting of probabilities, and so on. Professor Kahneman often offers you bets along the lines of: you have an x percent chance of winning this amount or a y percent chance of some other amount. We’re supposed to say which bet we’d take and that’s supposed to tell us something about the reliability of our decision-making. Often, the point is that the bet that looks good to our System 1 is not the best one when considered more thoughtfully by System 2. But when I’m confronted with one of these bets, I’m like: Huh??? I’m not a gambling man, see. I can’t transfer any of my sense of life as it is for me onto these abstract propositions regarding percentages and prospects of gain or loss. I don’t give a damn about the choices.

Or is it just that my System 2 is refusing to kick into action?

Anyway, that personal problem with some parts of the book didn’t interfere with a tremendous appreciation of Professor Kahneman’s gentlemanly, cordial presentation of his ideas. He even gives ample time and space to the work of a scholar who could be considered an opponent. Gary Klein recognizes much more importance than Professor Kahneman does in the function of expert intuition – which could be considered a feature of System 1 – without much recourse to System 2. Professor Kahneman even invited Professor Klein to collaborate with him on studies to see if they could find common ground. They discovered, in the end, that their views still differed, although not as much as they first thought they did. As I understand it, Professor Kahneman did come around to admitting that, in certain limited situations,an expert’s intuition about a situation – a gut reaction, if you will – can be valid. In those cases, the key factor is the knowledge which the expert has built up over time and which is accessible to System 1 without recourse to System 2. There’s nothing mythical about such intuition; it’s a matter of experience and recognition.

Given Professor Kahneman’s dispassionate, congenial tone through most of the book, it comes as something of a surprise, near the end, to read a statement of his position on important political matters. He takes issue with libertarians and the Milton Friedman school of economics. Although Professor Kahneman’s position is somewhat more nuanced than can be summarized here, it could be said that he feels that absolute faith in the free market, in the ability of the rational person to make the right choices if allowed the freedom to do so, simply isn’t tenable in the light of all the studies that have shown how compromised our rationality is. That’s why societies need to find persuasive ways to "guide the decision of someone who is otherwise unsure of what to do."

 

Stagestruck (Mystery) by Peter Lovesey, 2011

Although this story is completely fictional, it’s set in the real Theatre Royal in Bath, England. A pop star who’s beginning to lose her lustre has been hired to play the Sally Bowles character in a production of I Am A Camera. She’s not much of an actress but it’s hoped that her fame will bring in the crowds. Ticket sales are going well. But then the actress suffers a ghastly injury. Naturally, lots of suspects can be fingered and it’s not long before a dead body turns up.

Peter Lovesy writes competently and pleasingly. Detective Peter Diamond, an overweight widower who has a chippy relationship with his cat, is a likeable character. By way of a sort of subplot, the fact that Diamond suffers from a certain fear about theatres adds buzz to the story but I found the explanation for his phobia, when it comes, to be a bit corny.

Still, the theatre atmosphere is created very well. I’m not particularly keen on books that play up the supposed superstitions of theatrical people but Mr. Lovesey doesn’t make too much of them and, in any case, they’re more or less debunked by the end of the novel. There’s almost an Agatha Christie quality to the tight handling of the limited cast of suspects and the restriction of the investigation to one main setting.

Except that, in Agatha Christie, you don’t get the cop shop scenes. That’s where this book falls down a bit in my view. Most of Diamond’s police colleagues don’t come across as very distinctive characters. But this may be one of those situations where the people are more familiar to you if you’ve read other mysteries in the series. (There are about ten.)

 

Dark Places (Mystery) by Gillian Flynn, 2009

From her three books that I’ve read so far, it appears that author Gillian Flynn has a thing for narrator heroines who are at odds with the world. But the one in this book is somewhat easier to take than the one in Sharp Objects (reviewed below). This woman, Libby Day, has good reason to have a fairly sizeable chip on her shoulder: when she was about seven years old, her mom and her two sisters were slaughtered. At the onset of the violence, Libby escaped through a window and ran into the woods. But it was her evidence that was largely responsible for convicting her older brother, Dan, for the murders.

Since then, Libby has lived largely on a trust fund set up for her by citizens concerned about her plight. (The loser dad has long since absented himself.) Now she’s about thirty years old and her accountant tells her the money has run out. What’s she going to do? She has never worked. In fact, she’s more inclined to steal things than to buy them. (On the basis of her ghastly childhood, you have to cut this girl a lot of slack for things like wrecking nearly every foster home she’s lived in.) Out of the blue, she receives a letter from a strange group called the "Kill Club," a sort of clandestine association of crime afficionados who are obsessed with famous murders. They’re willing to pay Libby handsomely for any momentoes or any tidbits she can offer in connection with her murdered family members.

What’s more important – they strongly believe that her brother Dan, now serving a life sentence, wasn’t guilty. And they’re eager to pay her to do whatever she can to exonerate him. They figure that she, given her disastrous personal connection to the crime, will be able to ferret out information and to sidestep the authorities in a way nobody else could. How can Libby refuse?

You’ve got to give Gillian Flynn credit for putting her "sleuth" in a truly original situation. I can’t think of any other mystery that has its detective coming at a crime from such an angle. And it could be a result of this that the book is remarkably free of most of the clichs of the genre. Practically every situation and every character you encounter is new.

As in her phenomenally good Gone Girl, Ms. Flynn has hit on an unusual and very effective structure. Chapters alternate in time periods. Some of them consist of a current account of how Libby’s investigations are going; other chapters go back and tell us how things were going on the day of the murders for some of the characters involved. Libby’s meetings in prison with her brother Ben, whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years, show Ms. Flynn’s writing at its best: deeply felt and dramatic in a very real, not an exaggerated, way. Another good thing about the book is the sociological commentary. Ms. Flynn’s very adept at showing how social forces can shape the perception of a crime. In this case, a broohaha about Satanism has got the townspeople all worked up and that has affected the administration of justice in this case. And it’s scary to see how a well-meaning social worker can manipulate a child’s testimony.

Admirable as the book is in so many ways, I abandoned a close reading about 100 pages from the end. I’m not entirely sure why. Except that it was beginning to seem such hard slogging. There’s so much awfulness of human nature on display. These folk that Libby's dealing with aren't exactly the finest specimens of humanity. I skipped to the end and started skimming backwards to see what I’d missed. As for the explanation of how and why the murders took place, it's ingenious in one important respect. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in any other mystery.

 

Sharp Objects (Mystery) by Gillian Flynn, 2006

The only reason for this book’s coming to my attention is that it’s the first novel by Gillian Flynn, the author of the terrifically good Gone Girl (reviewed on DD page dated Oct 4/12). Apparently, Ms. Flynn’s publishers, hoping to cash in on the great success of that book, have re-issued her earlier ones. This one comes emblazoned with lavish blurbs from the likes of Harlan Coben, Stephen King and Kate Atkinson

At risk of showing myself to be a doofus by disagreeing with such illustrious authors, I’d have to say that Sharp Objects does nothing to enhance my opinion of Gillian Flynn as an author of excellent mysteries. Not that the book is incompetent or bungling. Just that it’s very unpleasant to read.

Our narrator, Camille, is a crime reporter at a third-rate Chicago newspaper. Her editor has sent Camille to her home town, a small place in Missouri, to write about the murders of two little girls. Thinking there may be a serial killer at work, the editor hopes to get ahead of the bigger newspapers on this story. Once she has arrived in the town, Camille stays with her mother and her mother’s husband in their lavish mansion on the wealthy side of town. She pokes about, bugging the local police chief, who’s very resistant to any media involvement, and catching up with old acquaintances from high school days, in an attempt to get the pulse of the town.

Occasionally Ms. Flynn shows flashes of the kind of writing talent that would eventually produce something as good as Gone Girl. Some of her comments on small town life have a striking sociological slant to them. She can surprise you with personal revelations, as in the instance when Camille remembers a blind man coming to an intersection in Chicago and asking: "Is anybody there."

I’m here, I said, and it felt shockingly comforting, those words. When I’m panicked, I say them aloud to myself. I’m here. I don’t usually feel that I am. I feel like a warm gust of wind could exhale my way and I’d be disappeared forever, not even a sliver of fingernail left behind.

When Camille’s interviewing an eighteen-year-old male whose younger sister was one of the murder victims, Ms. Flynn gives a touching account of the boy’s inability to accept the advice, foisted on him by others, that denial is supposed to be a good way for a man to handle grief.

But most of the encounters with local people seethe with Camille’s contempt for them. What makes the book so unpleasant is that Camille has a sour take on everything. From her point of view, everybody in her home town is hypocritical, phony, shallow, stupid, vain and materialistic. In the gab sessions with the women who were her highschool peers, the gossiping and bitching are unreadable. The only likeable character in the book is Camille’s editor back in Chicago but he’s not exactly an original: the crusty boss with the heart of gold. The big city detective who shows up to try to solve the murders is ok as a romantic interest for Camille but there’s nothing distinctive about him.

Some of Camille’s negativity may be due to the fact that, as we eventually discover, she has some serious psychological problems of her own. And then there’s her family situation. She was born "out of wedlock," as the old expression would have it, and her relationship with her mother – and the drip her mother later married – has never been very warm. The mother pretty much epitomizes some of the worst aspects of the town’s status-seekers. Her younger daughter, Camille’s half-sister, is an obnoxious and repellent teen who belongs to a group of similarly oriented females. The fact that Camille had another half-sister, who died after a short life of poor health, adds more Gothic gloom to the situation.

The process of discovering the identity of the murderer turns out to be a study of a kind of psychopathology. In that sense, I guess, the book could be called a "psycho thriller." There’s a kind of sick logic to it all but I can’t see how anybody could enjoy the reading.

 

The Great Gatsby (Novel) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and realize that you read all the important books when you were too young. Yes, it was right and good that your education should expose you to these monuments of Western culture, but you didn’t have the life experience to appreciate them.

Take The Great Gatsby. What was that about? Something to do with wealthy, jazz-age Americans on the east coast. Big parties. A guy standing on his lawn at night looking at a light across the water. Some people smoking and talking in a hot hotel room. That’s all of the book that remained in my mind several decades after my first encounter with it.

Time for a second look.

It can’t be denied that Mr. Fitzgerald’s writing does show its age in spots. At times it looks too formal, too crafted, too self-consciously literary. "On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains." There’s too much effort to link the two vehicles in balanced, writer-ish statement. "On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold." A creative writing seminar couldn’t produce any better! We’re told that "...floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter...." How nicely the writer moves his description forward with the temporal "until".

Word usages that look questionable today abound. And I’m not just talking about references like the one to a "roadster" that makes you feel you’re reading a Nancy Drew mystery. Verbs like "enjoined" and "objected" as dialogue tags, whereas writers today prefer the simpler "said". A character gets away with saying, "Now see here" – which sounds more like a prosaic formula than something anybody ever said. Gatsby overuses the expression "old sport" and, even though another character challenges him on it, you feel the writer doesn’t see how tiresome it is. We get archaic formulations like "So engrossed was she that she had no consciousness of being observed...." I’d prefer the simpler: "She was so engrossed that....."Mr. Fitzgerald gets away with speaking of "truculent eyes" and "authoritative arms," usages that I think most editors today would query. He speaks of someone giving a nod that was cynical and melancholy. It stretches the imagination to see a nod as either of those but trying to picture it as both causes the brain to go on strike. References to moonlight and magic occur so often that they begin to signal not so much any reality in the recognizable world but an authorial tic. A similar flaw would be the repetition of the adjective "ghostly" at least six times in the last few pages of the book.

Some passages would, by today’s standards of good writing, be rejected as corny, melodramatic and over-written: "Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade." Then: "...we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight." And this reference to the sun, which, in setting "seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city..." At the description of Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss, we have him listening "for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star." That sounds awfully tinpan alley but, on the next page, the narrator comments on Gatsby’s "appalling sentimentality." Maybe we’re to take it that the author recognizes the over-the-top quality of the passage.

Regarding the more significant imagery, the thematic kind, some of it strikes me as heavy-handed. On the road from West Egg to New York, the narrator describes the surrounding countryside as nothing but ashes. I’m like: what??? A note that’s equally exaggerated and unconvincing is the observation that fate herded certain people "along a short cut from nothing to nothing." The billboard advertisement for an oculist that looms over everything with its staring eyes – supposedly representing the eyes of God – didn’t do much for me, either.

Changes in mores over time show in a couple of areas. For instance, Tom’s scurrilous comment on inter-racial marriage. Maybe some people still harbour the same prejudice but a novelist today wouldn’t ascribe such an opinion to someone we were meant to see as a relatively sophisticated, upper middle-class character. The most startling example of out-dated attitudes comes in regard to the Jewish businessman, Mr. Wolfsheim. His repulsiveness, described with relish and no apparent embarrassment by the author, sounds no more enlightened than what we find in The Merchant of Venice.

I gather that critics and public hailed this novel as a great achievement in an especially American way. That aspect of the book eludes me. We’re told that Gatsby balances on the dashboard of his car "with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American..." Does an American stand on his dashboard any differently from the way a Canadian or a German does? In any case, how can movement be gifted with "resourcefulness"? Isn’t that reading rather too much into a simple stance? When someone says of Gatsby that he could have "helped build up the country," you get a faint echo of rah-rah Americanism that sounds puny now. The statement that Americans, "while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry" intrigues me but I can’t figure out how it applies to real life.

Yet, the amazing fact is that, in spite of all these faults (and several others which I haven’t bothered to list here), The Great Gatsby remains a wonderful, beautiful work of art.

What first strikes me in that regard is the voice of the narrator. Early on, he says, "I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer." Who can resist the invitation to follow such an enticing voice wherever it takes you? Later, you’re standing in the narrator’s shoes, sweating anxiously, when he says, "I felt an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before." Thanks to the narrator’s quiet voice in our ear, neat touches of suspense and foreshadowing are inserted subtly into the story. Towards the end of the book, the narrator negotiates a switch in mood very adroitly when he starts talking about train trips home as a college student. You wonder what this has to do with Gatsby but the persuasiveness of the narrator’s voice carries you along until the connection comes clear. For me, the most enchanting use of the narrator comes early on, during that party in the hotel room, when he sees himself as the passerby in the street, looking up and wondering what was going on in those lighted hotel rooms.

But the character of Gatsby himself would have to be the best thing about the book. From the moment we first meet him, we think: wow, what a guy! We’ve barely glimpsed him when, a few pages later, he’s saying goodbye to his guests. Already, the guy’s charm and charisma come leaping off the page. It’s hard to say how the author does it, except that he has somehow conjured up an exceptionally attractive man. (Makes me think FSF must have known some such character. Is there a recognized model?) And this man the author has created is not any cardboard figure of a star. When Gatsby is nervous about meeting Daisy at Nick’s house, we feel his vulnerability as keenly as we felt the power of his personality earlier. Gatsby comes off so well, in fact, that you have to wonder when Nick ultimately says that he, Nick, had disapproved of Gatsby from the start. You’re glad that Nick has finally told Gatsby to his face that there’s a certain greatness about him but I couldn’t believe that Nick hadn’t sort of loved the guy all along.

Gatsby is such a great literary creation, in fact, that I have difficulty believing that any actor could do justice to him on the screen or the stage. The previews of the forth-coming movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio make me cringe.

In the meantime, there are the many attractions of the somewhat less challenging characters.

  • In the subversive wit of Jordan Baker, I heard very distinct notes from Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolyn Fairfax: "And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy." The wit may be borrowed but it works well. I heard the voice of the celebrated Irish playwright again in Nick’s observation that two party-goers were "deplorably sober" and in his claim: "Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues...."
  • The depiction of the drunk encountered in the library shows great comic ability. Even more so in the scene when he emerges from a wrecked car. (The comedy of this scene being, in a horrible way, a kind of foreshadowing by contrast with another accident scene.)
  • It’s also notable that Tom Buchanan, presumably the villain of the piece, has a few moments around the time of the tragic accident where he gets to show a little nobility. Not all authors treat their villains so fairly.
  • As for the business of Klipspringer phoning back to the mansion to ask about his shoes, that’s a direct steal of the old joke about the Yorkshire man who loans a friend a "pot of paint". When the owner of the pot comes to the friend’s house to ask for it back, the friend’s wife says her husband has died. "Oh, I am sorry to hear that," the Yorkshire man says. "Did he say anything about a pot of paint?"

The novel made me think about how often the "Great House" figures as a central motif in literature. Surely Mr. Fitzgerald has tapped into a universal fantasy with this tale about somebody acquiring a splendiferous house in order to impress a love object. But it’s the business about the great house falling to ruin that seems so common in literature. It came as something of a shock, then, to realize that two of the prime examples I was recalling actually came after Gatsby. One can only conclude that this motif in Gone With the Wind and Brideshead Revisited was influenced by Mr. Fitzgerald’s work.

An aspect of the novel that struck me as being distinctive was the way so much of the dialogue deals with trivial details, moments of social awkwardness, people marking time: discussions about the times of trains, the weather and who’s going to drive in what car (although the latter subject turns out to have momentous consequences). It almost seems as though the author doesn’t handle dialogue very well. Certainly, he doesn’t subscribe to the dictum that every line of dialogue should reveal character. A lot of these lines are blah and banal. But maybe the point is that the rich and privileged – people whose lives are often envied from afar by the rest of us – don’t necessarily have clever chat ready at the tips of their tongues.

In the way of all great writers, Mr. Fitzgerald shows a deft hand with telling details. His specificity about the perfumes of the flowers in a garden makes you swoon in a way that a general reference to flowers wouldn’t. When two men are urged to go in and sit with a grief-stricken neighbour, they glance at each other before going into the room. In the mention of that glance, the writer’s functioning as a stage director with a keen eye for human behaviour. And then there’s the scene where Gatsby’s carrying an inflated mattress to the swimming pool. Part way there, he stops and shifts the mattress on his shoulder. That seemingly insignificant pause makes you feel you’re seeing something that’s actually happening, rather than reading a sort of generic narrative.

Although the theme of Americana didn’t do it for me, other ideas in the book did. Even if much of the view of humanity, the upper sector of it, seems jaded, the author gives a heartening view of human nature in the way he shows the kindness of local people rallying around someone who has suffered. One of the most profound thoughts in the book comes with the narrator’s recognition of his duty to a deceased person: "....I was responsible, because no one else was interested – interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end." What an eloquent tribute, in a minimalist way, to human dignity.

And speaking of minimalism, what I like most about the book is that it’s so slim and elegant, so sparing in its way of making a statement. It’s almost as if the work achieves impact in inverse proportion to its modest size. Compare that to the kind of over-blown, prolix work that typically passes for great American writing today.

 

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (Religion) by Marcus. J. Borg, 2001

A neighbour who knows I have some background in religious studies asked me to read this book. It appears to be aimed at people who want to hold on to certain Christian beliefs but who find that they can’t go along with a fundamentalist reading of the scriptures. Perhaps the book’s subtitle sums it up best: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally.

I’d say the book is successful in its attempt to reach out to those readers. The writing is very clear, logical and well-organized. Author Marcus J. Borg, an emeritus professor of Oregon State University, was the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture, until his retirement in 2007. Professor Borg persuasively makes the point that the bible need not be viewed as God’s speaking directly to humanity. Rather, the bible is a compendium of reflections and meditations on God. That is the sense in which it can be said to be "inspired" by God. It represents some of humanity’s best attempts to understand and come to grips with what God means in our lives.

Professor Borg offers so many intriguing insights on the scriptures that it’s possible to mention only a few of them here.

To begin at the beginning, then, let’s look at his exploration of the possible meanings and ramifications of the primal catastrophic event involving Adam and Eve. First, and not surprisingly, it’s seen as an act of disobedience. Secondly, as an act of pride. Thirdly, and with a more contemporary slant, as an act of sloth, by which Professor Borg means, "leaving it to the snake", i.e. letting someone else dictate the way you live. And fourthly, as the birth of consciousness, in the sense that consciousness entails distinguishing the self from the other, having a knowledge of opposites, or as the bible puts it "knowing good and evil."

Among the professor’s other fascinating insights into the Old Testament are his comments on the prophets. He emphasizes that we have to hear them in historical context. Their role isn’t about "prophesying" the future. It’s about calling people to account, particularly with regard to social justice. The prophets, in fact, functioned as a form of street theatre; their job was to shake people up. Professor Borg recalls how, in the late 1960s, when he was studying the prophets, they seemed like "powerful allies in the movements against racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War."

On the difficult subject of Job – difficult, at any rate, for those of us who think religion should be about just rewards – Professor Borg says: "The contrast between hearing and seeing is the key to the book’s climax. What Job heard was the conventional understanding of God as conveyed by tradition." But in the end, Job experiences the sacred: "But now my eye beholds you."

Job’s experience of God gave him no new answers or explanations for the problem of suffering. But his experience convinced him that God was real in spite of the human inability to see fairness in the world.

Moving on to the gospels, Professor Borg makes the point that we have to distinguish between two different aspects of the gospels: their reference to the historical person and their reflection on the canonical Jesus, i.e. the resurrected Son of God who is seen in all his glory.

.... when what is said about the canonical Jesus is taken literally and historically, we lose track of the rich metaphorical meanings of the gospel texts. The gospels become factual reports about past happenings rather than metaphorical narratives of present significance.

About the wedding feast at Cana, for example, Professor Borg says that if we focus on whether or not the event actually happened, we miss its point that the gospel is about "a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for the last."

For Christians who were raised with the notion that their religion was all about professing a creed, one of Professor Borg’s main points may be somewhat startling: "Taking Jesus seriously is not about a set of beliefs but about a person in whom we see embodied the way, the truth and the life."

The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That we ever thought it was is strange, when one thinks about it – as if one entered a new life by believing certain things to be true...

Much as I admire Professor Borg’s profound thought and his refreshing take on many scriptural motifs that have come, over the centuries, to seem like platitudes, there’s something about the book that bothers me a little. Quite often, Professor Borg says that some aspects of scripture are definitely not literally true, or even acceptable, whereas others are. On what basis does he make such decisions? It seems to me that he’s falling back on what seems to him, according to his best understanding of the traditions, to be true and good. I call this the "faith bias."

Some examples:

  • In a footnote, Professor Borg acknowledges that the "Sermon on the Mount" was constructed as an inaugural address, in a literary way, not as a literal redaction of what Jesus said on a certain occasion. Then he says: "Jesus really did proclaim the kingdom of God, and Jesus did say much of what is included in the Sermon on the Mount." But how does Professor Borg know what Jesus really said if he doesn’t have any other source than the scriptures?
  • About the historicity of the crossing of the Red Sea, Professor Borg says: "....something happened at the sea. But it was not the sea dividing into parallel walls of water with a canyon of dry land in between." Fine. But why does he say "something happened at the sea"? If he rejects the parallel walls of water, how does he know that something else happened?
  • In another footnote, Professor Borg says that he disagrees with the majority of scholars who feel Paul didn’t have much interest in the historical Jesus: "This strikes me as incredible." On what basis does Professor Borg find it incredible? Intuition? Faith bias?
  • Discussing to what extent John’s vision narratives are literary constructions and/or personal experiences, he says that he thinks John did have visions. But why does he say that? Who told him? Is it just a matter of Professor Borg’s gut feelings? If so, what value does his personal reaction have in the matter?
  • Professor Borg talks about the "flaws" in Revelation: its depiction of God as an angry tyrant and the misogynistic attitude in the reference to men who have not "defiled themselves" with women. Again, Professor Borg is picking and choosing.

The question, then, is: how do you decide which parts of scripture to accept and which to reject? It seems to have to do with the tradition you’re working in, your sense of what is best, your intuition. But isn’t there a danger here of blithely imposing liberal, twenty-first-century views on the ancient texts, as if you can be quite sure that the authors had the same mind-set you have? And who’s to say that your intuition on these subjects is any more valid than that of the fundamentalist down the street?

It seems to me that Professor Borg’s approach to scripture is perfectly fine within a certain faith community. It makes sense and there’s a kind of beautiful wisdom about it if you’re steeped in that tradition. The only point I’m making is that it doesn’t speak very convincingly to anybody outside that tradition. Maybe it’s not meant to. In any case, Professor Borg acknowledges that there’s no such thing as a completely objective stance on such matters. In his epilogue he says: "Of course, the whole book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history." And further: "I want to acknowledge again that I am aware of how subjective all this is. But subjectivity in this arena is unavoidable."

Still, Professor Borg’s book doesn't answer a problem that often comes to my mind when reading these contemporary commentaries on sacred scripture. No doubt the experts have an answer to my question, but I’ve yet to hear it. Professor Borg often makes the point, as do many scholars, that the writers of the sacred texts were not writing history, rather that they were writing about themes in metaphorical ways. But I have to ask: were they – in their own minds – writing in the thematic way that a 21st century scholar would see their writings?

To me, it looks like they thought they were writing literal history. Or is my impression in that regard simply a reflection of my own education and upbringing, i.e. the attitude to the scriptures that was instilled in me by my culture? But it’s not just my culture. Look back to the beginnings of the Christian era. The primitive church got caught up pretty darn quickly in the literal interpretation of the gospels: all that fuss among the early Fathers about virgin birth and so on. It seems that the readers who followed closely on the heels of the evangelists thought that they were writing literal history.

Where do we get off saying it was no such thing?

 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts (Psychology) by Susan Cain, 2012

Reading a book like this feels a lot like a guilty pleasure. You keep telling yourself that your purpose is high-minded: you want to learn something. But it’s actually quite a narcissistic pursuit because you keep getting thrilled by little discoveries about yourself -- like the character in Molire’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was so pleased to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life.

And why am I assuming that you’ll be self-identifying as an introvert? Because you’ll want to be one, before you’re fifty pages in. Introverts come off looking like God’s gift to creation. While the book admits that the world needs extroverts, that life would be dull without them, it’s among those profound, thoughtful, innovative and original introverts that you and I belong.

One of the book’s main points is that, although the supposed benefits of teamwork and groupthink" are being called into question nowadays, the world still puts too much emphasis on showy leadership and not enough on the kind of wisdom and guidance that introverts can provide. But, before we delve too deeply into our discussion of those charmed individuals, a note of caution is in order. Throughout this wide-ranging exploration of her theme, author Susan Cain makes it clear that not every psychologist would agree that the terms introvert and extrovert make useful labels for humans. Some experts today feel there’s no such thing as fixed personality traits; one person can exhibit various selves according to the given situations.

However, it seems that nearly all psychologists agree that introversion and extroversion are probably the two most basic distinctions in temperaments among people. In other words, you’re one or the other. The estimated percentages of the population in each group vary; it’s generally felt that about one-third to one-half of the population falls into the introvert category.

Early on in the book, Ms. Cain provides a quick questionnaire to see if you’re an introvert. Twenty questions are asked, along the lines of whether you sometimes let phone calls go to voicemail, and whether you work better on your own or with others. It seems to me, from repeated references to the point throughout the book, that the main determining factor is whether you are energized by large social gatherings or depleted by them. If you find that you have to get back to your quiet space for downtime in order to recover from that kind of an event – even if you enjoyed it while you were there – then you’re probably an introvert.

One of the most interesting studies on the subject of introversion and extroversion has been conducted by Dr. Jerome Kagan, who has been called one of the great developmental psychologists of the twentieth century. His longitudinal study (meaning one that studied the same people over a number of years) was launched in 1989. Dr Kagan subjected babies to stimuli like loud noises, bright lights and smells. Some babies reacted strongly, others didn’t seem much bothered. Dr. Kagan called the former the "high-reactive" and the latter "low-reactive." He predicted that the high-reactives would become introverts later in life and the low-reactives would become extroverts. His follow-up studies proved this to be true.

Physiological data helped to show why. Dr. Kagan measured heart rates, blood pressure and finger temperature – all properties of the nervous system controlled by the amygdala, which is located deep in the limbic system, one of the more ancient parts of the brain network. The amygdala receives information from the senses, then signals to the rest of the body how to respond. Dr. Kagan found that the amygdala was sending out more excited signals in the case of the high-reactive kids when they were subjected to stimuli. That’s why the high-reactives were reacting the way they did. Studies have shown that high-reactive introverts literally have thinner skin, i.e. their skin reacts to stimuli more than the thicker skin of low-reactive extroverts.

It would appear, then, that some people may be congenitally wired to be over-sensitive because their synapses start firing more vigorously when subjected to stimuli. This means that they’re quickly over-loaded with stimulation. So they tend to limit their exposure to stimuli, to seek quieter pursuits and lifestyles: they become introverts. The people at the other end of the spectrum need more stimulation to make their synapses respond. They, therefore, seek out the louder, livelier occupations and lifestyles.

As you’re reading the book and congratulating yourself on your deep sensitivity and profound thoughtfulness as an introvert, you may be troubled by the memory of some occasions when you didn’t seem quite so introverted. Don’t worry. Look at Professor Brian Little. In retirement, Professor Little lives on two acres near Ottawa, where he spends his life quietly working on his papers; he says it’s the ideal life for him as a true introvert. Yet, when he was a psychology prof at Harvard, Professor Little was one of the most popular, dynamic, sought-after profs ever. His dazzling lectures were packed; students lined up in the halls outside his office to talk to him. And this guy claims to be an introvert? No contradiction there, says Professor Little.

In fact, there’s a term that explains cases like his. It’s called Free Trait Theory. It holds that fixed personality traits and free traits coexist. This means that a person who is truly introvert can act – quite convincingly – as an extrovert, provided that he or she has sufficient belief in the cause that requires it. If you think there’s good enough reason for you to act like an extrovert, you can. In Professor Little’s case, he cared enough about his students to put on the kind of show that would rivet their attention.

Ms. Cain’s own case would be another example. Although a true introvert, she learned to conquer her fear of public speaking in order to get her ideas out there and to publicize her book. The attempt to be like an extrovert won’t work, though, if the introvert isn’t fully committed to the cause. Take the case of an introverted lawyer who is forced to enter contentious negotiations on behalf of corporate clients. If the clients’ business interests don’t excite her personally, the lawyer will find herself increasingly drained by the effort to act like an extrovert.

This business of acting like something you’re not may smack of hypocrisy, if not outright duplicity. What about being true to oneself? Ms. Cain offers what I find a very humane response to that objection. It’s all about what psychologists call "self-monitoring." Self-monitors are good at reading the clues as to how they should behave in a certain situation. At a party for example, the introvert may realize that it’s appropriate to act as if he or she is having a ball; that’s what the hosts want, so that their party will have the atmosphere of a success. The introvert guest realizes that it would be unkind to the hosts to sit there like a bump on a log. Why should the introvert’s stubborn personality impede the satisfying workings of a social event?

The supreme example of that kind of self-monitoring could be Jon Berghoff one of the most phenomenally successful salesmen ever. As a result of his selling record, he has been hired to give advice to over 30,000 salespeople and managers. And yet, he’s a stereotypical introvert in every way. So how could he be such a good salesman? Because he listens! His introverted affinity for serious conversation is his secret. "I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling," he says. "They buy because they feel understood."

In a book like this – especially when it’s a bestseller – I’m always on the lookout for specious reasoning and iffy science. Now and then Ms. Cain falls into the kind of references that make you wary, things like "one recent study showed" or "although conclusions are not yet definite, one researcher has found." [Not exact quotes.] Maybe you have to do that sort of thing when you’re trying to reach a vast popular audience with a subject in which the research is still in it’s early stages. Ms. Cain does, though, cite various other books, showing that her ideas aren’t entirely original.

When she gets into particular case studies, giving her subjects fake names, like "Dave" and "Emily," we seem to be straying into the cloying self-help repertoire. Maybe the exigencies of book selling these days require an author to provide these sorts of tips: about picking your career as suited to your introvert or extrovert temperament; about negotiating with your partner if your needs as extroverts or introverts are different; about parenting, education and so on.

At times, Ms. Cain uses, rather loosely, terms like "deep thinking", as applied to introverts, in a way that seems to imply that what’s going on with introverts is better than what extroverts are capable of. That strikes me as a personal bias more than a scientifically defensible stance. For the most part, though, Ms. Cain presents a  balanced and credible thesis. Her extensive and impressive end notes make up for any apparent lack of intellectual rigour in the main text.

 

The Fifth Witness (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2011

The Lincoln Laywer rides again. After his fantastic debut in the book by that title (see the review on DD page dated Nov 11/09), Michael Haller returns with another intriguing courtroom drama. At this point in his career, as a result of the US mortgage crisis, he’s representing clients who are desperate to hang on to their homes.

What draws him back into a murder trial is the fact that one of his clients, a woman who has been making a big public stink about the bank’s repossessing her house, is accused of killing the bank representative who’s been handling the foreclosure. The banker has been found bludgeoned to death on the floor of the bank’s parking garage. As usual with these Connelly books, it looks like a sure thing. The woman has plenty of motive and she was seen near the bank around the time of the killing. Eventually, more physical evidence ties her to the crime. Haller’s mission, of course, is to make us see things differently. Which he proceeds to do – very impressively.

As in the previous book, Haller dazzles with his courtroom tactics and his understanding of the subtleties of characters, the behaviours of juries, of witnesses, judges and accused persons. A reader who has idealistic notions about the law may get tired of Haller’s cynicism, his insistence that it’s never a question of innocence or guilt as far as a defence lawyer is concerned. He often cautions his assistant, an eager young law-school grad, against developing anything like a conscience, except in so far as it relates to doing the best job for the client. But we do get glimpses of the fact that Haller may not be quite as hard-hearted as he claims to be. In fact, his stance on the innocence thing comes in for a bit of a tussle in the final pages of the book. For the most part, though, the sparring between himself and the prosecutor, a feisty young woman, is presented less as a search for the truth than as a battle for dominance. The analogy of boxing is used with reference to their tactics. The two of them are constantly resorting to strategies and ploys meant only as ways of playing up to the jury, not as ways of conveying anything substantial to the case.

I’d have to say, though, that the courtroom drama in his book – stretching (with interruptions) over 250 pages – isn’t as thrilling as the one at the centre of The Lincoln Lawyer. Is that because the shtick isn’t as novel now? Hard to say. It seems to me that Mr. Connelly doesn’t have quite as impressive a case here. When we finally learn how the murder actually happened, it strikes me that a few elements of the explanation are a bit iffy. (I can’t be more specific, for fear of spoiling some plot elements but, if you’ve read the book and you want me to be more precise, let me know.) Still, the book makes for very good reading and there are a couple of good surprises at the end.

There’s also some incidental pleasure in the way Mr. Connelly plays a bit with his own fame and success as a writer. It’s a sort of Brechtian thing: blurring the line between illusion and reality. A producer in the novel says he’s thinking of having Matthew McConaughey play Haller in a movie and, as we know, Mr. McConaughey did just that in the 2011 movie of The Lincoln Lawyer. And at a party Haller attends, he bumps into Harry Bosch and his daughter, Bosch being the star of one of Mr. Connelly’s other mystery series.

While there’s nothing new about Haller as a character, he has that unique skepticism and savvy that make him distinctive. Most of the other characters are well done, if not transcending the genre in any notable way – except for the judge. He’s a crusty, impatient guy whom we can see struggling to be fair to both sides without giving in to his impatience. He gets off a lot of good lines, as when, in response to the prosecutor’s complaint that Haller’s wandering too far afield with his questioning of a witness, he tells Haller to "land this plane soon."

The only discordant note in the book, from my point of view, comes in the character of Haller’s ex-wife. A prosecutor herself, she tends, alternately, to flirt with Haller and rebuff him. He loves her and he’s always hoping to get back with her so that they can live together again as a family with their fifteen-year-old daughter. Just when things are looking good, he’s always found in the wrong, somehow, by the ex-wife. Some of their scenes together have a certain convincing resonance, but the ex strikes me as a tiresome person. Is it that Mr. Connelly just doesn’t do women characters very well? She appears to be in the book simply to give the requisite look at Haller’s personal problems, in case we were in danger of seeing him merely as a hard-nosed professional. I think the book would be better without this too-obvious attempt to humanize him.

 

Singing in the Shrouds (Mystery) by Ngaio Marsh, 1959

When this one turned up during a basement tidying session, it seemed like a good opportunity to see how the work of one of the masters of  classic detective fiction looked today.

True to expectations, this one is a typical Agatha Christie-type whodunnit with a closed set and a limited number of possible suspects. A freighter, with just eight or ten passengers, is about to sail from England to South Africa. Just before it leaves, a young woman is found strangled in a secluded spot in the dockyards. Her body is strewn with flowers. (Turns out she was, as an employee of a flower shop, delivering a bouquet to a departing passenger.) The fact that she’s clutching a fragment of an embarkation notice for the ship’s sailing would seem to indicate that a passenger intending to board the ship killed her. The ship has already sailed by the time Scotland Yard gets on the case, so Ms. Marsh’s stalwart Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is sent to board the ship as it’s underway. Impersonating a relative of the owner of the shipping company, he proceeds to snoop around and try to pinpoint the culprit among the passengers, meanwhile pondering the possible connection between this crime and similar ones in recent months..

There is, to be sure, a certain pleasure in the precise plotting and in the neat, efficient economy of Ms. Marsh’s writing. And a story about shipboard life always has some appeal for me. Apart from that, the book looks very dated. In an era when we’ve become accustomed to fictional sleuths with much rougher edges, Alleyn is far too much the female British writer’s idea of the noble detective: wise, kind, gentle, always correct and all-knowing. For lack of a Watson figure to whom the detective can confide his thoughts, we get excerpts from long letters that Alleyn is writing to his devoted wife, Troy, the painter. In telling her about the case, he keeps saying that, from the hints he has provided, she has probably spotted the murderer. But there are no such hints available to the reader. When the murderer is finally unveiled, there is no sense that it must inevitably have been this person and that we readers were stupid for not seeing that all along. (Really good mysteries do that to you.) The way this one devolves, the murderer could have been any one of the suspects, provided Alleyn simply went back and provided sufficient motivation for that person.

The characterizations are so thin that it would almost be an exaggeration to call them two-dimensional. The captain of the ship, when not drinking, is always spluttering and blubbering about threats to his authority. A plump steward is obviously a stereotypical gay man although, this being the 1950s, Ms. Marsh can’t say so explicitly. The ship’s eligible young doctor and a young female passenger fall into a courtship that’s about as interesting as a Hallmark Valentine card. The only likeable character (assuming a reader isn’t drooling over Alleyn’s manly virtues) is a fat, wealthy woman who’s so ridiculously flamboyant and harmlessly extroverted that you can’t resist her.

One character is intolerable, not just as a person, but also as an example of bad writing. A retired school teacher who turns every verbal exchange into an opportunity for vituperative pedantry, he spouts such supercilious nonsense that he makes you want to tear out the pages he appears on. With this odious individual, far from involving me in the story or fascinating me with his character, Ms. Marsh is only showing how much she enjoys tossing words around to make flashy sentences.

It’s sad to find that a writer who, in my estimation always deserved a very high rating in the mystery genre, should turn out to be so disappointing on re-reading.

 

Stay Close (Thriller) by Harlan Coben, 2012

With some twenty-one books to his name, Harlan Coben is hardly a new discovery – except to me. Don’t know how I didn’t find him before now. But I’m glad that I finally did.

One of the main characters in Stay Close is Megan, a suburban wife and mom of two kids. She’s leading a very contented domestic life but, unknown to her family, she was once a stripper who was immersed in a very different lifestyle. What launches the story is a phone call from a friend back in that other world who tells Megan that some pretty bad stuff has been happening to people she knew. Men who frequented the bar where she used to work have been disappearing. A prize-winning photo journalist, with whom she had a relationship, has since fallen on bad times and he happens to have captured some incriminating pics on his camera. And, of course, there’s a dogged detective named Broome trying to sort things out.

At times, I found the back story a little hard to follow. The connections among all the characters were very complicated. At a crucial point in the past, a lot of people coincidentally happened to be in the same place for diverse reasons. But it all does eventually make sense, and there’s a nice surprise in the discovery of the culprit. Not many writers, I find, can manage that these days. A knife fight between two women goes on for an amazing eight pages. That might seem a bit much, but Mr. Coben, in a tour de force of writing, makes it credible and suspenseful.

But the best things about Mr. Coben’s writing, based on the evidence of this book, don’t have much to do with the thriller genre as such. We’re talking more in terms of general literary merits. His characters are vivid and unforgettable. The edgy hostility of a fifteen-year-old female towards a mother has never been captured as well as in the character of Megan’s daughter. Megan’s interaction with her elderly and demented mother-in-law is treated with compassion and great understanding. I did have doubts about whether Megan could have hidden her past so successfully but Mr. Coben tries to cover that point; he gives her deceased parents and he belatedly shows that some people have had their suspicions about her. A corrupt cop actually has a change of heart near the end of the book – too late, as it happens, but, even so, that’s not something that you often get in a thriller.

Mr. Coben’s so good at giving his character’s motivations and thoughts that you feel this is the rare thriller-writer who could rise above the genre with a straight novel. Here’s a father (Del) receiving bad news about a son:

Del tried to push away the pain, tried to concentrate on what Goldberg was saying. That was what you did in times of agony. Some people used denial. Some used the need for vengeance. Whatever, you didn’t concentrate on what it all meant to you because that would be too much to bear. You divert with the irrelevant because you couldn’t change the awful truth, could you?

Then there are Mr. Coben’s coruscating wit and his satirical take on contemporary society. To read his depiction of young moms yakking in a coffee shop makes you feel that Mr. Coben must have been sitting at one of the nearby tables when you were recently bummed out by that scene. His description of a pretentious bar mitzvah with a fake Hollywood ambiance is excruciating. Characters often respond to each other with delicious sarcasm. One of my favorites is the time when the photographer is telling his boss about how he got beaten up and his camera was stolen. The boss, failing to inquire about the photographer’s condition, asks if important photos are lost. The photographer pointedly responds: "No, no, don’t worry....I’m fine really." The boss comes back with: "On the inside I’m dying of worry. I’m asking about the pictures to cover my pain."

Much as I liked the book, one thing about it bothered me a lot. A couple of young psychopaths, looking like the epitome of the clean-scrubbed bible camp leaders that they are, go through the book torturing people. No torture session is actually described. Just enough is said about the young couple’s intentions to make your flesh crawl. It got to the point that I would skip those passages when I saw them coming. But that’s not the problem. I found it hard to see the point of these two people. I had to keep asking myself how they fit into the plot. I think their involvement had to do with the fact that the father of one of the missing men had hired this pair to torture people who might be able to provide information about his son’s disappearance. But the book didn’t need these psychos. The novel would have worked perfectly well without them. It looked as though they had been included just to create a frisson of horror. I hope it doesn’t turn out that all of Mr. Coben’s books have such gratuitous evil tossed in.

 

The Child’s Child (Crime Fiction – ?) by Barbara Vine, 2012

As all Ruth Rendell’s fans know, Barbara Vine is the pen name she uses as author of books that are somewhat different from her whodunnits. Usually, the Barbara Vine books are a little more chatty, often told from the point of view of a first-person narrator. There’s some crime involved but it’s often a question of finding out what happened rather than who did it. Some of these books – The House of Stairs, A Fatal Inversion, No Night Is Too Long – have provided some of my most enjoyable reading in the genre.

This one is a very odd addition to the shelf. It offers a novel within a novel. Both stories contain a bit of crime although there’s not much detection involved in either of them. Homosexuality and illegitimacy (as it’s legally dubbed) feature in both of them.

The framing story is told by Grace, a young woman who’s writing a thesis on the depictions in English fiction of unwed mothers, or, as we would call them today, single moms. The narrator and her brother are sharing a large house in London that they’ve inherited from their grandmother. When the brother brings his boyfriend to live there, difficulties arise. In this section of the book we get Barbara Vine’s engaging style of narrative, as when Grace tells us about attending the grandmother’s funeral with her brother: "I have been honest about why we wore black, so I may as well keep up the honesty and say we expected something."

The other story is contained in a privately printed book that Grace has been asked to read. It was written years ago by someone’s long dead relative and it was thought that it couldn’t be published at that time because of the controversial nature of the subject matter. Grace is asked to read the book and see whether it could be published now.

That section of the Barbara Vine book, forming the major part of it, tells the story of a girl who, in the period between the two world wars, becomes pregnant at the age of fifteen. Shunned and despised by her strict Methodist parents, she doesn’t know where to turn until her older brother invites her to come and live with him in a rural village where he’s going to take up a teaching job. He’s gay and has no intention ever of marrying, so they will pretend to be husband and wife, with him posing as the father of her child. It’s an intriguing premise and some of the things that happen are very interesting – which makes for compulsive reading. At times, things are so difficult for these pathetic young people in their dreary rural hideaway that it feels like you’re reading Thomas Hardy.

But the writing comes nowhere near his standard. It’s even far below Ruth Rendell’s There’s too much "telling" – i.e. passages where the author drones on and on about what happened, rather than re-creating it for you on the page. There’s hardly any dialogue. We’re constantly being told how someone felt, rather than shown.

  • "For the first time in her life she felt utterly alone."
  •  "John thought he had never in all his life felt so lonely...."(
  • "John had accomplished a lot, but he still had more decisions to make, and these perhaps were the hardest."
  • "Maud was never heard to speak of her brother again."

In some sentences, syntax is missing in action: "How much Guy was aware of Bertie’s relationship with John she knew nothing."

You wonder if there’s supposed to be an old-fashioned, stately quality to the prose. Maybe a pastiche? It’s not very palatable to a reader today. And yet, Grace declares, having read the book, that it’s "publishable." You have to wonder what this woman knows about publishing these days. Same for Ruth Rendell. She wraps up Grace’s story in such a perfunctory way that it feels like scraps left over from an abandoned project that was intended to be a novel on its own.

 

In One Person (Novel) by John Irving, 2012

Maybe it wasn’t a good idea for me to try this book. Maybe you should simply know which writers you like and avoid the rest. In which case, I would be inclined to say, having read two or three of John Irving’s earlier books, that he’s simply not my kind of writer.

And yet, his contribution to world literature has been such that you can’t ignore him. I especially remember the sense, on reading The World According to Garp, that it was showing me something new and exciting in the line of novel-writing. One of my favourite incidents in that book was the one where the cleaning lady spotted a manuscript on a publisher’s desk and took it home to read that night. Next morning, on returning the book to the desk, she told the publisher that it was the most offensive, most scandalous thing she had ever read. The publisher asked why, then, she had kept reading it. Her answer: "To see what happened next, of course!" (Not an exact quote as I don’t have the book at hand.)

If Mr. Irving had written nothing else, I would remember him fondly for that landmark moment in my reading life.

And so, it was with an attempt to be open-minded, in spite of some reservations, that I decided to try In One Person. It’s narrated by Billy Abbott, a bisexual who grows up in the 1950s and 60s in a small town in Vermont where he attends a private boys’ school. His grandfather, Harry, is the co-owner of the local sawmill and therefore one of the town’s major employers and most influential citizens. Billy’s father disappeared from the scene before Billy could get to know him. Billy’s last name – Abbott – is the name of the man his mother subsequently married, a charismatic English teacher at the boys’ school.

One of the first people Billy falls in love with is a Miss Alberta Frost, the sole employee in the town’s small library. It takes Billy quite a while to figure out that Miss Frost is a transgendered person. The reader can see this revelation coming a long way off but it’s not as if we’re meant to be taken by surprise, given that this book is obviously going to be about sexual ambiguities. Then there’s the question about Billy’s grandfather who happens to really enjoy cross-dressing, so much so in fact, that he’s famous for giving splendid performances as a female in the local theatre society’s productions.

That seemed a bit much to me but, again, I was willing to suspend disbelief, given the book’s clear intentions. I couldn’t help wondering, though, whether theatregoers in small-town America in that era would be so tolerant of that sort of thing. But maybe the man’s prestige in the community had something to do with the indulgence of his audiences. And Mr. Irving does – belatedly – let us know that some of the locals were not amused. Still, I did find it a little hard to believe that the grandpa, even given his own sexual inclinations, should talk to the teenage Billy in such an enlightened, twenty-first century way about gay love.

Not that I’m complaining about the fact that the world, as Billy encounters it, seems to be filled with people who have issues about their sexual orientation. It’s that kind of book. For that reason, I’m even willing to accept that the least likely character should ultimately turn out to be gay and/or transgendered. That’s all part of Mr. Irving’s agenda here.

Before long, though, the improbabilities, coincidences and melodramatic aspects of the story were piling up so thickly that belief was becoming impossible. This story-telling run riot. Granted, the author’s debt to Charles Dickens is hinted at, with all due respect, but I doubt that even Dickens would have two cardboard characters like Billy’s aunt and his grandmother, two women who respond in pre-determined ways to every situation.

To list just a few of things in the book that are hard to swallow

  • One character has had the toes on one foot cut off by a lawnmower, a detail supplied only by way of an excuse for his not doing military service. And yet, we’re never given any indication that the handicap affected him in any way.
  • Billy’s aunt, a married woman and a mother, faints not once, but twice, at a theatrical audition just because the subject of female sexuality in Ibsen’s plays is mentioned.
  • The theatre group has put on the same plays over and over, year after year. What audience, no matter how indulgent, would stand for that?
  • The director of these plays is always the same person.
  • The Norwegian director of the plays keeps mangling English in a way that’s supposed to be comic but comes off as a cheap shot by the novelist.
  • When the school starts putting on Shakespeare’s plays, there’s far too much overlap between the characters in the plays and the characters of the real-life people playing them. That sort of thing, given that it’s something of a literary conceit, might be believable in the instance of one production but not the four or five in a row that we get here.
  • The assassination of JFK is dragged in coincidentally to provide a pivotal moment in a relationship of Billy’s.
  • A young gay man actually vomits at the exposure of female sexuality that his lover is reading aloud from Madame Bovary.
  • Much is made of an event in which two sailors were sitting at opposite ends of a row of toilet holes on a navy ship during wartime. The ship lurched and one man slid across the row of seats and bumped into the other man. This charming incident keeps coming back as a kind of watershed moment in the history of Billy’s family. And yet, I ask you – without being too specific about the male anatomy – how could a man slide across several toilet holes without doing severe damage to his private parts? 
  • A repugnant case of mother-son incest is offered up for our delectation.

Towards the end, the book rushes on to breathlessly report suicides, head-on fatal accidents and deaths from AIDS. We’re given so much pharmaceutical detail in connection with that plague that it looks like Mr. Irving is trying to impress us with the vast knowledge he’s acquired on the subject. A girl whose father is dying of AIDS screams whenever she sees a man. Ghosts who appear are clearly meant to be real, not figments of the imagination, because, in one case, a ghost arranges somebody’s clothes at the foot of that person’s bed.

Any one or two of these details might be acceptable, but as a whole, they amount to not so much a reflection of the lives of real people as a compilation of grabby ingredients that the author thinks will titillate us. For me, the point at which the whole thing became nearly intolerable was the meeting between a school’s star wrestler and a female fan. The athlete is saying something to her about his awe of the unbeaten record wracked up by his predecessor from another generation of school boys. Sounds ordinary enough, doesn’t it? But the catch is that the jock, who is something of a homophobe, doesn’t suspect that the woman he’s talking to is the transgendered person who was once the very hero that the homophobe is now speaking about so approvingly.

After such a highly contrived, stagey incident (at about page 250), I started reading more quickly through the rest of the book’s 425 pages. I was beginning to lose the ability to take the story seriously.

Not having read Mr. Irving’s entire oeuvre, I’m not sure about this, but In One Person looks to me like the most autobiographical of the lot. Certainly there are some significant correspondences with his own life. The narrator, Billy, becomes a writer who turns out novels in the style of memoirs, as does Mr. Irving. And a character notes that Billy’s novels have attempted to portray sympathetically people of sexual orientations that have caused them to be marginalized. Billy agrees that this is exactly what he has attempted to do.

Which, it strikes me, has also been Mr. Irving’s aim. The entire book seems to be an attempt to prove how sympathetic he can be towards – and understanding of – people who are struggling with LGBT issues. Billy, in 1969, at a meeting with movie moguls who are considering making a film of one of his books, gives a ringing declaration of what could only be called a gay rights manifesto. Mr. Irving doesn’t tell us whether this is before or after the Stonewall riots in June of that year, but it sounds like Billy was in the vanguard of the movement.

Mr. Irving’s message seems to be: Look at me, such a red-blooded hetero guy, who can be so accepting of and magnanimous towards people who once were – and sometimes still are – shunned because of their sexuality! There’s a certain condescension in that attitude, I find. It feels as though the book is written from outside the community, by someone looking in, not someone who understands it from within. (That’s not the case with the novels of Alan Hollinghurst, one of Britain’s pre-eminent writers.) You begin to wonder if questions of appropriation of voice are at issue.

As a reader, I’m keen to get to know and like the kind of people Mr. Irving is writing about if they’re written about in a convincing, believable way. But Mr. Irving, in a Thanksgiving dinner scene, has a lesbian, who’s a guest at a family’s feast, making a toast about how much she loves her vagina. I am willing to admit that a person might make such a speech on such an occasion. But it doesn’t ring true here. It’s like grand-standing on the part of the author.

Occasionally, though, there’s a flash of insight that makes you more interested in some of these characters. That fellow who was vomiting about Emma Bovary, for instance. I could accept that he, being an insecure young gay man, was anxious  about Billy’s fidelity as his lover. That sort of person I could picture very well. But vomiting about Emma Bovary?

And then there’s the matter of what might be considered the unstated message of the novel. It would appear, from the various examples that Mr. Irving serves up, that he wants to show that there are genes that influence things like cross-dressing and transgendering and that they can be inherited. As far as I know, no scientific authority would ever endorse such a view and yet, Mr. Irving seems almost to be insisting on it.

Mr. Irving, of course, can write what he wants. For all I know, he could very well be the most successful and most famous writer today who has a claim to being considered in the top rank of novelists in the English language. What I have to say about him is going to have no effect on his status or fortune. His fans, knowing that he can be relied on to produce what they want, will gobble up his books.

In the interests of good writing, though, I have to point out that, quite apart from his approach to his subject matter, various quirks of his writing style grate.

  • The constant bracketing, for instance. On some pages, I counted seven instances. Good writing tries to avoid a lot of bracketing because it indicates that the author couldn’t find anyplace to fit in the bracketed thoughts; the author’s job is to find places where the thoughts can be fit in without interrupting the flow of the text by means of brackets. When so many brackets are used you get the impression of a garrulous writer who just can’t be bothered to fit his thoughts into more cogent packages.
  • Exclamation marks also are over-used. An exclamation mark should appear only if it’s not clear that a statement, without the exclamation mark, is meant emphatically. When you have too many exclamation marks, the emphasis loses its effect.

Sometimes Mr. Irving includes an unnecessary sentence that he or his editor should have cut. For example:

She was very proud of volunteering for Kennedy’s election campaign in Ohio in 1960; Esmerelda had been hugely pissed off when Ohio, by a narrow margin, went Republican. (Ohio had voted for Nixon.)

Surely the bracketed sentence here is superfluous. And there are sentences where the syntax is inscrutable: "Knowing Kittredge, how utterly crazy I was, because if Kittredge were ever to entertain the possibility of a gay relationship, it was painfully clear to me what he would be." [sic] How on earth does "how utterly crazy I was" fit into the logic, such as it is, of the sentence?

I do, however, appreciate the fact that Mr. Irving’s writing takes some care with an issue that doesn’t get close enough attention from many writers: the chronological appropriateness of certain vocabulary. Mr. Irving will discuss, for example, whether or not words like "gay" or "hot" were used at earlier times in the sexual sense that they have today. Far too many writers – especially the authors of screenplays – aren’t as careful to give their characters vocabulary that fits with their times.

And it must be admitted that, no matter how strong my objections to the writing, I did read the novel through to the end. To find out what happened, of course.

 

 

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