Dilettante's Diary

Summer Reading 2013

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
NOVEMBER 3, 2017
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here:

  • "Moi, j’cris pour agir." Vie de Voltaire
  • Sex at Dawn
  • Live Wire
  • Eight White Nights
  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne
  • All That Is
  • Out of the Blue

"Moi, j’cris pour agir." Vie de Voltaire (Biography) by Max Gallo, 2008

It might not have occurred to me to look up a biography of Voltaire, but this book was brought to me as a gift by a family member who’d been to Paris. In addition to helping me brush up on my French reading, the book made me realize how little I knew about this fascinating man and his era.

Born Franois Marie Arouet in 1694, the man we know as Voltaire adopted that nom de plum in 1718. He’s best known today for his great works – the play Candide, for instance – but all his life he was involved in a flurry of anonymous pamphlets and diatribes that were flying back and forth among the literati. People were always insulting each other and trying to stir up antagonism towards the establishment. Reminds me a bit of what happens on Twitter today, although I imagine that the quips back then were a bit more stylish than most tweets.

Clearly, France at that time was ripe for a revolution. You just looked the wrong way at some count or duke – or some other member of the aristocracy – and Wham! you were sending out change of address notices with the Bastille listed as your new abode. That’s exactly what happened to Voltaire in 1726, as a result of a dust-up with some family of nobles. Fearing a long imprisonment, he persuaded the authorities to exile him to England.

To his delight, Voltaire found that Protestant country a wonderful place for freedom and equality, compared to the rigidly controlled ambiance of Catholic France. As for his attitude to Catholicism, I, having been raised in that religion to think of Voltaire as something of a boogey man, found it instructive to be reminded that he was opposed not so much to religion or to the concept of a deity, as such, but to the abusive power of the Church. In the 1760s, he got all Europe worked up about the case of Jean Calas, a Huguenot, who had been tortured and executed for supposedly killing his son in order to prevent the son’s becoming a Catholic. A judicial panel, convened in 1765 to review the case, largely thanks to Voltaire’s agitation, came to the conclusion that the son had committed suicide and that it was anti-Protestant bias that had led to the condemnation of the father. He was posthumously exonerated and his family was paid an indemnity.

And then there was Voltaire’s public outrage about the 1776 case of Jean-Franois de la Barre, a soldier barely twenty years old. He’d been accused, among other things, of offering indignities to a crucifix in a public setting. It remains unclear still what offences he actually committed. There were claims that he had been heard singing impious songs and that he hadn’t knelt down when a procession of the Blessed Sacrament had passed by. His things were searched and he was found to possess, along with some pornographic books, a copy of Voltaire’s banned Dictionnaire Philosophique. The authorities felt they had enough grounds to sentence him to have his tongue ripped out and to be beheaded. Voltaire declared the whole fiasco a disgrace to France.

But we can’t attribute to Voltaire "right thinking" as we would see it today on every issue. Like many a brilliant person, he was a prickly, multi-faceted character. One of his less admirable tendencies was his vituperation towards the Jews who, he felt, controlled the world’s finances. He wasn’t without certain hypocritical tendencies when it came to currying favour with Church authorities. He went through a grandly staged farce of fulfilling his "Easter Duty", i.e. receiving holy communion during the Easter season, in order to avoid censure. In a similar way, he was always toadying up to the monarchy. Even though he claimed to be such a free thinker, he very much wanted to be in the good graces of the rulers. He also did a lot of lobbying to get himself elected to the Academie Franaise. He wasn’t too high-minded to take measures to have a parody of his work suppressed.

And he wasn’t anything like an egalitarian. Although he tried to establish an ideal community on his estate, he treated his servants in a very lordly way. He always acted as if there was a kind of rarefied distinction to the life of the arts. While he admired the lively action of Shakespeare’s plays, he deplored the baser side of the works. On being told that Shakespeare included rustics in his plays because they were part of nature, Voltaire said: "My ass is part of nature too but I wear underpants."

Several of the relationships in Voltaire’s life stand out as remarkable.

There was his friendship with Frederick the Great, of Prussia. It’s hard to escape the impression that the monarch was a gay man who was deeply infatuated with Voltaire. Whether or not the latter reciprocated in the same spirit isn’t so clear but he definitely did profit from a very intense emotional bond to Frederick and from lots of perks that went along with it – until the breach that looked pretty much like the classic lovers’ quarrel.

Then there was milie du Chtelet, the married woman, who supported Voltaire in her home and was his lover for a long time. A mathematician and a physicist, she had translated and provided a commentary on Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. (A new opera about her was produced recently at the Met.) She and Voltaire had lots of fun doing science experiements together. Voltaire said about her that she was "a great man whose only fault was being a woman."

One of the strangest of Voltaire’s relationships (in my view) was the one with his niece, Marie Louise Mignot (after her marriage she became Madame Denis). Following her husband’s death, she moved in with Voltaire and became chatelaine of his household. They apparently loved each other very much and he complained that the one flaw in the whole thing was that he was impotent. (This is a good book for learning French sexual slang.) Was it normal in those times and in that society for a man to speak as if it would be ok for him to have sex with his niece?

As for the condition that prevented him from doing so, he made this joke when his work on the dictionary brought him to the word ‘fornication:’ "I can neither say or do anything about that." It seems that the man was raddled with many other physical problems – stomach ailments, diarrhoea, etc – that nearly ruined his pleasure in his success and celebrity. Not to mention his travails in his tromping back and forth across Europe, trying to find homes for himself in those periods when he was banned from his beloved Paris because of his perceived threat to the authorities. But he kept fighting on with an indomitable spirit and, in the end, he triumphed with a sort of canonization by public acclaim in Paris, not long before he died in 1778, at the age of 83.

My French isn’t good enough to give an authoritative critique of the writing of this book but one aspect of it did strike me as rather odd. It’s all written in the present tense. A typical chapter opening (#18) would be (my translation):

He is astonished to be feeling neither fatigue from the voyage, nor sadness from parting.

He has the impression that his body so often hampered by sickness is impervious to the bumps in the road full of ruts, to the icy gust that lifts the leather curtains of the carriage at each blast of snow.

He remains indifferent to the discomfort of the inns.

He is only seized by impatience.

The intention, I presume, is to achieve an effect of immediacy. You move quickly through the book’s 500 pages. But there’s little room, given this approach, for historical analysis, for setting anything in context, for any explanation of what’s happening. Was it worth sacrificing all that for the sake of experiencing Voltaire’s life as it must have been for him, i.e as something like an onward-rushing stream? I’m not sure. On the other hand, who am I to criticize the writing of author Max Gallo? He’s a member of the distinguished Acadmie Franaise. I’m not.

 

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (Science) by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jeth, 2010

From what I hear, respectable people – even some of my age and social status – will sometimes dip into Savage Love, the widely syndicated sex advice column of Dan Savage. These people will look at the column, I’m told, not for what the courts used to call "prurient interest" but merely to find out, in the interests of sociological awareness, what’s happening sex-wise among some of the more adventurous members of our human species. In the process of such researches, these readers may have noticed, a while back, that Mr. Savage was touting a book called Sex At Dawn. To hear him tell, I gather, it was the new bible for sexual liberation in our day.

At risk of miscontrueing something, I will try to summarize the thesis of Sex at Dawn. Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jeth argue that conventional theory has it all wrong about monogamy among humans. According to accepted thinking, monogamy is essential to human nature because of the deepest needs of the two sexes. Men want monogamy because they don’t want to be tricked into raising some other guy’s spawn; women need monogamy, therefore, because they need the protection and support of a man who is committed to them through the long and arduous process of raising progeny.

But such expectations and requirements wouldn’t apply to prehistoric times, say Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth. In communal gatherings where there was plenty for everybody to eat, why would a woman need the support of one man to sustain her and her kids? Similarly, why would a man balk at raising the products of some other man’s sperm, when there was lots of food to be shared by everybody? The conditions for monogamy, the demands for exclusivity and ownership over partners and children, only came in with the concept of private property, say Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth. Male control over female sexuality is due to socio-economic factors, then, not evolution. By way of a sly caveat in passing, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth note that, if monogamy were natural to humans, you’d have to wonder why it’s so often breached and why it requires so much defence and legal shoring up.

To some extent, their thesis is based on an understanding of the behaviour of our prehistoric ancestors. But how can anything be based on that, you might well ask, since there is, by definition, no record of what was going on in prehistoric times? Well, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth use the argument of what might be called noticeable effects. They cite the proverbial court case in which the witness said that A had bitten off the finger of B. But did the witness see A bite it off, the judge asked? No, said the witness. "Then how do you know A bit it off?" the judge asked. "Because I saw him spit it out," the witness answered. In other words, reasonable assumptions about prehistoric human sexuality can be made from examining results or effects here and now.

And what do we find here and now that might shed light on such matters? Well, these examples aren’t exactly close to hand, but Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth cite studies showing that, in some primitive cultures, a pregnant woman is expected to have intercourse with as many men as possible. It’s thought that the more sperm that’s provided and the greater the variety of it, the better the offspring that will be produced. In some such cultures, if a new woman is brought into a family group by one man, it is expected that all other men in the familial group will have sex with her. For any of them to refuse to do so, would be considered an insult to the new member.

Looking to our close relatives among the primates, studies of bonobos have shown that lots of sex with multiple partners creates social bonds that lead to a better atmosphere for raising young. There may be some trace in our own culture of a woman’s openness to multiple partners. Take the fact that the woman, for the most part, is the noisier partner in sex. Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth see this as a sign that she’s advertising – although most women in our culture probably wouldn’t consciously own any such motives – that she’s available and she’s a really fun sex partner.

Then there’s the question of some things that we think are innate but could be cultural. Consider the scenario of the philandering husband. In America, when a woman catches her husband fooling around, the knee-jerk reaction is to throw the bum out. Get rid of him, pronto. It’s as if this is the instinctive and inevitable response. But is it? Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth point out that such a response is far less typical in some European cultures The continental wife who has been cheated on is likely to consider her options more carefully: would it be to her advantage to keep the bum around and make the best of the situation?

Having no particular expertise in the fields of sexuality, anthropology or sociology, I’m in no position to argue with Mr. Ryan’s and Ms. Jeth’s thesis. As far as I can tell, it makes good sense. But the one thing that I can comment on critically is the writing. I wish Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth had not fallen into a gee-whiz style of presentation. It’s as if their agent or their publisher persuaded them to popularize their prose, to whip it up into a kind of best-seller shlock. Thus we get hokey phrases and the kinds of puns and double entendres that become so tiresome when the subject of sexuality is on the agenda:

"Pollock kindly confirmed our hunch that the Kulina word for ‘meat’ (bani) refers both to food and to what you’re thinking, dear reader."

"Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy. Got that, fellas?"

"Now, anyone who can pretend not to be jealous as his wife has sex with twenty or more men is someone you do not want to meet across a poker table."

With regard to biologists’ comments on men’s "souped-up genitals" and "spermatic firepower" as factors in selection pressures: "Now we’re talking!"

On the subject of female vocalization in primate sex, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth discuss whether it would attract predators who "would be quite interested in a two-for-one special on fresh primate..."

On the scientists’ speculations about the fact that, as we started walking upright, female breasts became more prominent, buttocks less so: "...they reason that some of the female’s fertility signaling moved from the rear office, as it were, to the front showroom."

Regarding the extravagant, brightly coloured sexual swellings."The female chimp’s red-light district comes and goes, reflecting the waxing and waning of her fertility...."

 

To my taste, the message of the book would be more dignified – and possibly more convincing – without this pandering to a craving for titillation. I also think the book would have benefited from more scrupulous attention to factual verity. At one point, we’re told that "Robert Kennedy was felled on a Los Angeles stage..." I had thought that almost everybody knew that he was shot, not on stage, but in a hotel kitchen. Is this just nit-picking on my part? Not exactly. It makes me uncomfortable to come upon such slips in a book that purports to be presenting well-reasoned, fact-based science. The facts in question in this example may not be germane to the discussion but the error makes you wonder about the writers’ reliability in other matters.

The following passage raises even more serious doubts about the writers’ credibility:

Once beyond the age of malleability, males seem to be stuck with whatever imprint they’ve received, latex or leather, S or M, goat or lamb. If the influences during this "developmental window" are distorting and destructive, a boy may grow into a man with an unalterable, nearly irresistible desire to reenact the same patterns with others. The ritualized, widespread pedophilia in the Catholic Church appears to be a prime example of this process (as does the Church’s centuries-long attempt to cover up the issue).

It seems to me that the italicized sentence (my italics) is a case of Mr. Ryan and Ms. Jeth parrotting common perceptions, assuming we will react with the expected knee-jerk horror, without stopping to seriously examine what they’re saying and to ask whether it’s fair or accurate. A few questions, then. What is "ritualized" about the pedophilia? Does it take place in ceremonies? On altars? With candles and holy water? Incense? And how does the pedophilia reenact patterns that were imprinted on the perpetrators when they were kids? Maybe it does, in some cases, but it strikes me as a very loose generalization to say that it "appears to be a prime example of this process."

Furthermore, I think it’s a bit far-fetched to suggest that the Church’s "cover-up" is a reenactment of something that was imprinted on the members of the hierarchy during their critical "developmental window." Could a future cleric, during his crucial developmental period, have some experience that would impress on him a behavioural pattern that would suggest to him that it would be a good idea, when he becomes a member of the hierarchy, to cover up wrong doing by his subordinates? Maybe, but it’s kind of hard to re-construct any such scenario.

I’m no apologist for the Catholic church and I’m not here to downplay the inestimable harm caused by pedophilia perpetrated by members of the clergy. But it disturbs me when authors whose thinking I respect and whose thesis I’m trying to appreciate can make such unsubstantiated and careless statements.

One smaller quibble, not about the book, but about Dan Savage’s recommending this book in his column. The book quotes him at some length and very glowingly. I think that, in the interests of full disclosure, he should have mentioned that in his column. But he didn’t, as far as I can remember. (Oops, I forgot that I don’t read it!)

 

Live Wire (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2011

It’s getting increasingly difficult for me to find good mysteries. Apparently, most mystery buffs these days are satisfied more easily than I am. It’s a welcome event in my reading life, then, to discover a mystery writer who can be relied on. This is just my second book by Harlan Coben but it looks like he’s the real deal. (His Stay Close is reviewed on DD’s "Winter Reading 2013" page.)

Live Wire features an agent named Myron Bolitar who gets very involved in the affairs of his clients. In fact, it’s slightly incredible that he takes on so much trouble by way of trying to help solve their problems – functioning virtually as a private eye and a rent-a-cop at times – but maybe previous installments in this series have helped accustom readers to Myron’s modus operandi. In this case, the trouble starts with a visit from one of his clients, a former tennis star who’s pregnant. She’s happy about that, except for the fact that somebody has posted a message on her Facebook page saying that the baby isn’t her husband’s. The hubby, also a client of Myron’s, is one half of a celebrated rock duo, the less charismatic and less starry of the pair. The singers don’t do public performances anymore because the sexier partner was involved in a scandal around the death of a sixteen-year-old groupie, but the duo is still hugely successful by means of its recordings.

When Myron starts trying to find out who has posted this Internet slur about the paternity of his client’s baby, he visits a swanky private room at a druggy after hours club. There he catches sight of his sister-in-law. She and her husband, Myron’s younger brother, have been estranged from Myron’s family for many years, presumably because of some ill-advised comment Myron once made about her. He’s now eager to catch up with her but she disappears from the club before he can accost her and he ends up seriously injured by the club’s bouncers.

It’s not until about half way through the book that we get anything like a murder – a suspicious death, in this case. And the way the skulduggery is resolved is extremely complicated. There’s an awful lot of digging back into the years to find out who-said-what-or-didn’t-say-about-whom. There are so many rock stars and tennis stars and the relationships among them are so intricate that it made me dizzy trying to sort them out, but I guess that’s what your milieu is like if you’re an agent. In any case, there’s a very nice surprise, near the end of the book, when it turns out that the situation with the famous rock duo isn’t at all what we thought it was.

In Harlan Coben’s Stay Close, I found his development of characters to be one of his best skills. In this earlier book, it’s not so impressive but there are some pleasures to be had in that respect. At one point, Myron is faced by a guy holding a gun on him. When Myron starts making some calculations about what’s going to happen, it sounds like his character is taking a page from Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s action hero. Myron has an associate, Win, who seems somewhat incredible: a guy who was apparently born into the silver-spoon-in-the-mouth class of society, who has fantastic connections and can always pull the most important strings in any situation. Maybe this, again, is something that’s somewhat less far-fetched to regular readers of the series. Never mind, Win makes for a very interesting character and some of his wry, ironic remarks make for the best lines in the book.

Author Harlan Coben serves up lots of intriguing ideas and info on what might be called sociological issues of our times: the way merchandizing works; the business of professional sports and the ethos of winning at all costs; the shallowness of celebrities and of the fans who fawn over them; how dads feel about their obligation to protect their daughters. If there’s an underlying theme to all this, it could be the question of whether or not you should meddle in other people’s business, whether you should try to solve their problems, a question that arises because of Myron’s spectacular efforts in that direction.

 

Eight White Nights (Novel) by Andr Aciman, 2010

"I am Clara."

Our narrator is at a Christmas party in Manhattan. A woman has held out her hand and introduced herself with these words. For the next three or four pages, he mulls over them, analyzing and weighing them from every possible angle:

  • I am Clara, delivered in a flash, as the most obvious fact in the world, as though I’d known it all along....
  • "In someone else, I am Clara would have sprung like a tentative conversation opener – meek, seemingly assertive, overly casual...
  • In a shy person, I am Clara would require so much effort that it might leave her drained and almost grateful when you failed to pick up the cue......
  • I am Clara was neither bold nor intrusive, but spoken with the practiced, wry smile of someone who had said it too many times....
  • It barged in unannounced, like a spectator squeezing into a packed auditorium....
  • It was a cross between a ribbing ‘How couldn’t you know?’ and ‘What’s with the face?’..."

Clearly, we’re in the hands of a slightly obsessive fellow. Eventually, we get outside his head – just for a bit – and a few more dribs of conversation take place between the narrator and Clara. For the next fifty pages (roughly) we get about five lines of dialogue per page and the rest of the text consists of the narrator’s anguished speculation about what it all means, stuff along the lines of: does-she-mean-what-I-think-she-means-and-does-she-know-what-I-think she-means-and-does-she-know-that-I’m-wondering-if-she-knows?????

And thus the book goes on. Over eight days during a snowy Christmas holiday in New York, Clara and our narrator lurch through a series of sporadic meetings. Sometimes their encounters are planned, sometimes accidental. As far as I can tell, we’re never given his name. Maybe he’s meant to be a typical guy who could stand in for all of us. Or is it that his own persona seems insignificant, if not erased, vis a vis the dazzling presence of the woman? Almost all his waking hours are devoted to trying to figure out what’s on her mind. In a way, it’s a vast demonstration of what psychologists call "Theory of Mind": the human ability to see one’s mental states in context and to appreciate how other people’s mental states are similar to or different from one’s own. To give just one example of how the narrator turns over every mental stone:

It hit me that she said exactly what I’d have said under the circumstances. But I would have said it for exactly the opposite reason. I would have been overly demonstrative, as she was, to show how lightly I took these matters. Was hers the voice of diffidence cloaking itself behind hyperbolic complaints about the weather, about my phone, about me – or was she making no secret of something most people are reluctant to reveal too soon? Was it too soon?

Ploughing through his speculations on these matters can be heavy going at times, at least as heavy as it is for his fellow New Yorkers stumbling through the blizzards. To tell the truth, I might have abandoned this book if it weren’t for the fact that the author’s previous novel, Call Me By Your Name, had struck me as one of the great love stories of all time. (Reviewed on DD page titled Spring Reading 2013) Around the 100-page mark of Eight White Nights, however, come these haunting thoughts:

The worst part of dying is knowing you’ll forget you ever lived and ever loved. You live seventy or so years, and you die forever. Why can’t it be the other way? To be dead for seventy years – and throw in another seventy for good measure – but to live forever. What purpose does dying serve, anyway? I don’t care who says no human could endure living more than a lifetime. Ask the dead and see what answer you get – ask the dead what they wouldn’t give to be here and catch tonight’s snow, or have a week of starlit nights like these, or fall for the world’s most beautiful woman. Ask the dead.

It seemed to me that, if a writer could put his finger so delicately and accurately on one of the deepest aches of the human condition, then it would be worth hanging in to see what else he had to say.

And it was worth it, even if the reading was slow and laborious at times. It’s the kind of book that you need to own, so that you can read it again and again. Once you’ve accustomed yourself to the fact that nothing much is going to happen, you can savour the depth of Mr. Aciman’s thoughts, which is really the point of the novel. At times, it struck me as something of a writing experiment – to see just how far a writer could spin out his thoughts about a bare minimum of events. Inevitably, although the longish sentences are not too convoluted, the work of the greatest French novelist of all time came to mind. It wasn’t any great surprise, then, to learn that Mr. Aciman is the editor of The Proust Project, a book in which twenty-eight authors rhapsodize about favourite passages from Proust’s novel.

I’m not in favour of obtrusive or pretentious literary allusions, but sometimes a gracious nod to other great writings helps to add a certain lustre to a work. In Eight White Nights, echoes of other writers can sometimes be faintly heard. The line "....she’ll turn old and wizened and nodding toward life’s close and be filled with gall and remembrance...." reminded me of W.B. Yeats: "When you are old and gray and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire...." The reference to William Blake is explicit, when the narrator, admiring a sweater of Clara’s, thinks of how he’d like to bury his face in it: "Little lamb, who made you, Clara?" And he has this to say after a visit to his mother: "She’ll head back into her bedroom the moment she closes the door behind me, like Ulysses’ mother slinking back among the shades."

This book is very distinct from Call Me By Your Name, not least because we’re dealing here with a heterosexual urge rather than a gay one, but you do pick up hints of certain themes and writing techniques that are favoured by Mr. Aciman. When it comes to love, there’s the Wuthering Heights type of blending of the two lovers’ identities. "There was more of her in me than there was of me." And:

Now, in the dark, with the memory of her body leaning on mine, all I had to do was say her name and she’d be under the covers, move an inch and I’d encounter a shoulder, a knee, whisper her name again and again till I’d swear she was whispering mine as well, our voices twined in the dark, like those of two lovers in an ancient tale playing courtship games with one and the same body.

Another way in which this book resembles Mr. Aciman’s previous novel is that when the two protagonists begin, finally, to talk about the really important things, about their feelings for each other, the talk is inchoate and fragmented. This appears to be a speciality of Mr. Aciman’s. I can’t think of any other novelist who conveys so well the reality of the vague, suggestive, allusive and elusive comments that pass for deep discussion, as opposed to the grand speeches that so many other writers give their characters at important moments. You might almost say that Mr. Aciman is giving his reason for this type of writing when he has the narrator comment:

"We say things that matter as though they didn’t matter. And we let tangents take us off course to save us from lingering on the stuff that really matters. But then what matters comes back again, and we’re off on tangents and detours again."

Among many more fascinating insights into psychology and social interactions, we get such statements as:

  • "Clara?" I asked, exaggerating my surprise, as people do when they rush to greet you first, for fear of being caught trying to avoid you.
  • Putting a totally new name on my permanent list [i.e. his phone list] would have nipped every hint of uncertainty, chilled the flustered hesitation with which we palpate a stranger’s name before admiting it into the ledger of our lives...
  • I didn’t know why there was so little to say. Because there’s so little about me I care to talk about before knowing it’s quite safe to – and even then....? Because the person I am and the person I wish I were at this very moment in the bar aren’t always on speaking terms?
  • Being myself was like asking a mask to mimic a face that’s never been without masks. How do you play the part of someone trying not to play parts?
  • Of course, I feared that the joy I felt, like certain trees, had taken root at the edge of a craggy cliff. They may crane their necks and turn their leaves all they want toward the sun, but gravity has the last word. Please don’t let me be the one to pull this tree down
  • ...it struck me that though we’d never really had anything here, still maybe we’d also lost everything here, as though something from being so piously wished for had managed to become the memory of something lost without having existed at all, a wish with a past that never had a present.

Mind you, at times, you get frustrated with the one-step-forward-two-steps-backward quality of this affair. You want to ask: what the hell’s wrong with this pair? why can’t they just get it together and get it on? And I did tire of the feisty, provocative, enigmatic female who always has a way of wrong-footing her male admirer. At every turn, Clara is proposing puzzles and games, popping questions, that show the narrator at a disadvantage. She’s "too clever by half," as the Brits would say. She frequently takes the guy by surprise, whisking him off his feet, so to speak, with her impulsive, spontaneous moves. She takes over in restaurants; if the women’s washroom doesn’t suit her, she uses the men’s. On top of which, she keeps blowing hot and cold about our guy.

This sort of imbalance in a relationship is a trope that appears to be very popular among male novelists these days. Maybe that’s the kind of dynamic they find most exciting, but I think a love story is more effective if you can feel a little more empathy for the love object than you do for Clara. To give her credit, though, she does eventually get around to explaining what her problem is with the narrator and why she has such a tremendous fear of attachment. In the process, she admits – with remarkable candour – some of the things that are least admirable about herself.

Among the incidental pleasures of the book, there’s the Manhattan lifestyle of two young singles: the film festivals, the coffee shops, the zipping back and forth on buses. (I suspect people who are familiar with the place would get more pleasure from the geographical details than I can.) So much of the book takes place in the narrator’s head, though, that it comes as something of a huge relief when, near the end, he stumbles into a convivial gathering of old friends. I’m not sure that we ever get any very clear indication of what he and Clara do for a living; presumably, that doesn’t matter, given that this story is taking place during a holiday break. The feel of snowy New York at Christmas time is palpable. If you can be comfortable with the fact that the book is so inward looking, it almost feels as though you’re hibernating from that wintry scene.

 

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Biography) by Sarah Bakewell, 2011

Sometimes, you’re drawn to a writer’s work by that writer’s connection with another writer. What drew my attention to the elderly James Salter, who recently published a new novel, was the fact that such eminent writers as Richard Ford have been saying that Salter has been a very important influence on their own writing. As for Michel de Montaigne, it was his connection to no less a writer than William Shakespeare that impressed me. I’d heard that it was thought that Shakespeare had probably read Montaigne and that some of the Frenchman’s ideas had found their way into Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, one passage – Gonzolo’s speech in The Tempest in which he extols the perfect society – is thought to be almost a line-by-line steal from an English translation of Montaigne. Not too shabby a credit for the Frenchman.

Born in 1533 to a prosperous family of what might be called the "landed gentry," Montaigne served both as a politician and a courtier but in 1571 he decided to retire from the world of business and devote himself to his writing. When his father died, however, he was forced to carry on with the management of the family’s enormous estate in southwest France, near Bordeaux. It seems that he devoted as little as possible of his time and energy to the business, preferring to isolate himself in his private tower attached to the family chateau, where he worked on his writings. After the initial publication of his Essays in 1580, he kept adding and expanding the work, glueing additional sheafs into the books and squeezing notes into the margins. At his death, in 1592, he left behind masses of re-worked manuscript that had become almost unmanageable.

For a while, I travelled with an English translation, in paperback format, of excerpts from his Essays. But the writing style was so convoluted and long-winded that I found it very tough going. The paperback volume was eventually consigned to one of many boxes of books destined for a charity sale. Another translation of an excerpt from Montaigne, in The Art of the Personal Essay (1994), an anthology put together by US writer Phillip Lopate, proved so much easier to read that I think it must have been a "modernization" or an adaptation of Montaigne. But the book contained only a brief sampling of him.

In one or the other of those sources, as I remember it, there was a passage where Montaigne was talking about a swan (or some similar bird). He was wondering whether the extreme length of the bird’s neck gave the bird more pleasure when swallowing food than in the case of a bird with a shorter neck. Montaigne was saying that he was wishing that he had a comparably long "neck." And yet, it was obvious, from the context of his remarks, that they had sexual implications. I’m thinking: Did 16th century dudes actually think about such things?

Well, yes. It appears that Montaigne was quite capable of talking about a guy’s sexual urges and other very intimate aspects of being human. Or anything else that might pop into a person’s mind. In fact, it’s astonishing how contemporary and relevant the guy can seem to any reader. Many a commentator, in the centuries since Montaigne’s life and right up to our own time, has made remarks like "How did this writer know so much about me?" or "This feels as though I could have written it myself." It seems that there was nothing about human life that was beneath his notice.

How is it, then, that my education failed to include some study of this all-important author? I can only conclude that it’s because the essentialist, absolutist culture in which I was raised had no time for a man who was, in effect, such a non-essentialist. It seems he could never come to a definite conclusion about anything. His style was to examine things from every angle, from every viewpoint, to consider all possibilities. Almost every essay, I gather, included several changes of direction, signalled by some phrase like "And yet I don’t know...."

That’s one of the characteristics that makes Montaigne, in my eyes, particularly relevant to our own times. Montaigne was clearly a guy who, as the Zen masters would put it, did not "stick to anything." Ambivalence was his key note, you might say. He was ready for whatever came up, always willing to try something new, to see things in a fresh light. This openness was based on a kind of skepticism that acknowledged the impossibility of the human intellect to arrive at any certain truths. What followed from that, in Montaigne’s view – although this might seem a bit incongruous to us – was that you might as well follow the teachings of the Church. Why not, given that you couldn’t arrive at any certain truths on your own? That stance, apparently, kept Montaigne out of trouble with the religious powers-that-be but it’s not clear that he took their teachings all that devoutly. He was more interested in the wide world of unknowns than in the somewhat narrower religious sphere.

When Montaigne’s book began to be so well received around Europe, it turned out that he didn’t necessarily see himself any longer as the reclusive, eremitical writer. He began travelling around the continent, soaking up acclaim and basking in his own celebrity. (Well, didn’t we say he was always up for anything new?) To Montaigne’s amazement, in his absence during these travels, he was elected mayor of Bordeaux, a post he only reluctantly accepted on returning home. This was surely one of the rare cases of the actual realization of the platitude that holds that the best leader is the guy who doesn’t want the job. His qualifications for the position, in the opinion of his peers, were his equanimity and fair-mindedness. This was a time when Catholics and Protestants in France were hacking each other to bits. Montaigne was not one to take sides. He always tried to maintain a balance, to give a fair hearing to both parties in such disputes.

Of course, like any writer with anything truly original to offer, Montaigne stirred up a lot of controversy, during his life and after. The ways various important writers would interpret Montaigne in their own day would shape the way the public perceived him, for better or worse, in any given era. Blaise Pascale hated him because, for Pascale, with a mind so insistent on the kind of certainty that came from Catholic doctrine, the kind of doubt that Montaigne espoused was intolerable. Ren Descartes, as well, given his predilection for intellectual clarity, had no time for Montaigne’s ambiguities. The romantics loved the humanism in Montaigne but they carried these ideas to emotional extremes that were quite unlike Montaigne’s calm, cautious manner. Jean Jacques Rousseau, even though he borrowed extensively from Montaigne, pushed doctrinaire theories that had nothing in common with Montaigne’s skepticism.

Touching on all these points, Sarah Bakewell’s book provides very good reading but it’s a bit difficult to say exactly what kind of book it is. It isn’t exactly a biography. It’s more like an introductory university course on Montaigne.You can just imagine the first year students scurrying off to their libraries (oops, their laptops) to research the many possible essay topics hinted at between the lines of "Professor" Bakewell’s work. I question, though, whether the format she has chosen for this book is a particularly effective one. Each of the twenty chapters is headlined by the question "How to live?" and each chapter, drawing on Montaigne’s writings and some details of his life, asnwers the question from a different angle, as for instance, "Wake from the sleep of habit" (Chapter 10), "Live temperately" (Chapter 11) and "Guard your humanity" (Chapter 12). I suppose this is a catchy and clever way of putting across a few key issues in the story of such a remarkable person, but I’m not sure that there’s anything inherently valuable in such an odd literary architecture. In other words, I think the material could have been conveyed just as effectively in a more conventional, perhaps a chronological, structure.

One of the most interesting relationships in Montaigne’s life, as seen from today’s perspective, was that with Marie de Gournay, his most devoted disciple. They became friends when she, an enthusiastic admirer who was about thirty years younger than he, sought him out. He consented to be a sort of unofficial adoptive father to her. The position wasn’t only nominal. He paid far more attention to her than to his daughter who was the only one of his six children to live into adulthood. Mlle de Gournay, something of a prototype feminist in her own writings, made herself the expert on his work. As Ms Bakewell puts it, Mlle de Gournay was "a St. Paul to his Jesus, a Lenin to his Marx."

After his death, Mlle deGournay, on the invitation of Montaigne’s family, took on the job of sorting out his massive piles of additions and amplifications to the Essays and to publish, in 1595, what she claimed was the definitive version. In the late 18th century, however, a copy of the Essays containing many notes in Montaigne’s hand was found in the Bordeaux archives. Dubbed the "Bordeaux Copy," it was found to contain many significant differences from Mlle de Gournay’s version, particularly when it came to the laudatory references to herself that were included in the latter. It then became the academic fashion to deride Mlle de Gournay for twisting Montaigne’s thoughts to express her own ideas in the Essays.

In 1866, however, a scholar named Reinhold Dezeimaris proposed another way of looking at the situation. Perhaps Mlle de Gournay had been working from something other than the Bordeaux Copy. What if Montaigne himself had become fed up with the many insertions, additions and corrections in that work and had prepared a clean copy? This might have been the one that was forwarded to Mlle de Gournay by his family. It would not have been kept, of course, because author’s manuscripts were not preserved after publication. This would explain why it doesn’t exist today. This hypothetical text has become known as the "Exemplar." Whether or not it ever existed is hotly debated by Montaigne experts today but, for those who believe in the theory of the Exemplar, it restores Mlle de Gournay to her place as the true champion of Montaigne.

This intriguing question on the divergent versions of an important text reminds me of the mystery about the origins of the New Testament gospels. Many scripture scholars now believe that there must have been an earlier version of the gospels, now lost, that provided much material for the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, given that they share so much that they didn’t get from Mark, the earliest version of the gospels that we now have. That missing text has been dubbed the "Q" version of the gospels. Wouldn’t it be fun if we got to heaven some day and found both the Q version and the Exemplar waiting for us in the celestial library!

 

All That Is (Novel) by James Salter, 2013

The publication of this novel prompted lots of hoop-la about the fact that author James Salter, a revered American writer in his late eighties, was back in the game, after publishing his previous novel many years ago. In this one, not surprisingly, Mr. Salter is musing on virtually the whole span of a man’s adult life. As the title suggests, the book covers pretty well everything.

We open with a brief flash of Philip Bowman’s courageous leadership in the US navy in the Second World War, then we follow him to college, his first unsuccessful attempts to get laid, then his successful one with the woman who becomes his wife. He more or less drifts into a job as an editor at a small but esteemed publishing house. His wife, a horsey type, from a well-heeled family, finds that she’s not well suited to his lifestyle and goes back to her plutocratic roots.

Through the rest of the book, Philip drifts through one affair after another as he watches the transformations of the world around him. We pass landmarks like the JFK assassination, the Viet Nam war and the Women’s Movement. We learn a lot about the business of publishing, the interactions of writers, editors and agents, and about the world of the arts in general. A certain aspect of the lifestyle of Philip and his friends came as something of a surprise to me: Mr. Salter views the US in the latter half of the twentieth century as a place where there was a lot more train travel than I'd have thought.

Mr. Salter certainly has an engaging voice when it comes to telling a story. But there are some odd qualities to the writing that don’t exactly mark it as the work of a writer of such great status. In a way, the book seems more like notes for a novel than a novel. It’s desultory and wandering. You get the impression that the writer hasn’t tried very hard to focus the material, to shape it and to give it more momentum, more narrative power. (One section about swimming in dangerous waves is thrilling, though.) Although Philip is the central focus, the writer’s gaze hops from one character to another. Sometimes, in a paragraph about one character, we get a changed point of view – i.e. the thoughts of another character – for just one sentence or so. On one page, a paragraph is giving us Philip’s thoughts; the next paragraph suddenly, and without warning, switches to the thoughts of his publisher. The men are identified by name but, since their names are Bowman and Baum, a reader can be forgiven for not catching the transition.

Then there’s the question of the attention given to some of the characters. It's hard to say why a lot of space is given to the story of a colleague of Philip’s, another editor in his company. Maybe his story is supposed to provide a contrast to Philip’s but there isn’t so very much difference. And yet the other man’s story doesn’t, on its own, seem significant enough for the place it has in a novel about Philip. The same can be said for many of the characters that crop up. We can get a lengthy aside about the character of a bookseller, or about the wife of a publisher. For no reason that I can discern, we get the story of a woman editor’s troubled son. At times, it begins to feel like Mr. Salter is flippping through a memory album of interesting people he has known and he’s decided he’s going to pay them tribute by fitting them all into this novel.

And yet, some of the major characters are polished off somewhat cursorily. One of the big loves of Philip’s life is a British woman named Enid. But how and when their affair ends, I have no idea. She just disappears. Later, though, a woman named Edina is introduced as someone who’s involved in publishing. You find yourself flipping back to see if this is the same woman. Apparently not.

Maybe a loose, lackadaisical structure is to be expected of such a senior writer. You don’t want to think of the guy labouring too hard over the galleys. Other aspects of the writing, however, show what might be considered the benefits of age and wisdom. A mellow wisdom, for example. As we look back over the vicissitudes of a man’s life, happiness may seem rather elusive but the message seems to be: "Well, a person does what he can." On the subject of age itself, the following passage may have a particular aptness for some readers:

Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush. One day nothing has changed, a week later, everything has. A week may be too long a time, it can happen overnight. You are the same and still the same and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appared at the corners of your mouth.

If you’re looking for lovely writing, there’s plenty of it here. This, for instance, about a small town in summer:

Housewives drove with kerchiefs on their heads and their men in hard yellow hats stood near signs warning Construction Ahead. The landscape was beautiful but passive. The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast.

About the fact that the publishing business has changed a lot, we get this:

Those who had been it for some years, he and Glenda and the others, were like nails driven long ago into a tree that then grew around them. They were part of it now, embedded.

Whether another aspect of the book comes inspite of Mr. Salter’s age, or because of it, he pulls off the feat – one that not many novelists can manage – of creating a truly believable kid. Here’s a five-year-old telling an adult about the umbilical cord: "They tie a knot in it. They cut it off and it hurts. They tie a knot and stuff it inside you, really!" Speaking of biological matters, the sex scenes are very good, although I did find myself wondering about the accounts of Philip’s experiences in various women’s beds: didn’t the guy ever have sex that was less than earth-shattering? didn’t he ever have a mediocre orgasm?

Strange to say, in the case of a writer who can produce such beautiful prose and who is so esteemed, there are several instances of what strike me as clumsy writing. Sometimes they raise issues of syntax or grammar. Introducing us to a new character, Mr. Salter says: "In a mauve, flowered gown that bared one plump shoulder and impatiently kicking at the dogs, Liz Bohannon opened the door." Every time I read that, it takes me a few seconds to try to shake the image of one plump shoulder kicking at the dogs. Another sentence reads: "He knew Delovet from experience and also rumors that some of the writers he represented never received royalties they earned...." To my mind, that sentence would read much better as: "He knew Delovet from experience and also from rumors that some of the writers he represented never received royalties they earned...." Or: "He knew Delovet from experience and he also knew of rumors that some of the writers he represented never received royalties they earned....." To have "from experience" and "rumours" as objects of "knew" is to fall down in terms of what we used to call, in high school creative writing class, "parallelism." A similar problem crops up in the reference to a character as: "...like some dissolute son who cannot ever be trusted or change...." To have both the passive "be trusted" and the active "change" as completions of the one verb "cannot" doesn’t read very well. Why not something along the lines of: "...like some dissolute son who cannot ever be trusted or cannot ever change but must always be taken in." The following strikes me as an egregious lapse: "She was aware of her good looks as she performed, which is what it was." There’s no antecedent for "it." The sentence would be gramatically and logically correct if it read: "She was aware of her good looks as she performed, which is what she was doing."

And on to what might seem the inconsequential question of punctuation. It grieves me that such a distinguished writer, like so many lesser ones now, is slighting the humble comma to the point of barely using it when it has every right to be called upon to lend its services in the cause of making the going a bit easier for the reader. One sad example: "At dinner where they sat rather far apart at the big table the talk was about the storm that was raging and roads being closed."

 

Out of the Blue (Memoir) by Jan Wong, 2012

Jan Wong is one of the most memorable journalists Canada has produced. While I can barely recall a single article by any of her peers, I remember serveral Jan Wong pieces in The Globe and Mail. There were the fascinating reports on her month working undercover as a maid, the one about her sneaking forbidden cutting devices onto planes and the hilarious account of the rapid get-to-know-Canada bus trip for Asian tourists. Not to mention the unfailingly incisive – and sometimes disconcerting – accounts of Ms. Wong’s luncheon dates with celebrities.

When her byline stopped appearing in the Globe, you couldn’t help wondering what had happened. Rumours were circulating: Hadn’t she had a breakdown or something? Or had she been fired for some serious breach of journalistic ethics? So, when Jan Wong decides to tell us what happened, I’m going to listen, especially when this looks like a rare chance for a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of the world of journalism.

This book gives the whole story, not just the matter-of-fact events but all the emotional and personal repurcussions. In 2006 Ms Wong was sent to Montreal to write a story for the Globe about the killings at Dawson College in that city. While working on the story, Ms Wong had an insight about three mass killings that had taken place in Quebec, the others being the massacre at the cole Polytechnique in 1989 and the one at Concordia University in 1992. It occurred to Ms Wong, that the three perpetrators of these tragedies had come from families of recent immigrants to Quebec. In other words, they weren’t what Quebeckers would call pure laine i.e. old-stock Quebeckers. Ms Wong opined that the resulting feeling of not being accepted, of being marginalized by the culture around them, might have contributed to the murderers’ propulsion to violence.

Her published article, including that supposition, created a tsunami of a backlash. Ms Wong was berated for insulting Quebeckers. She and the Globe were inundated with hate mail. Ms Wong herself received death threats. She was caricatured in the Quebec media as a racist Asian. The Globe quickly retracted. The editor-in-chief published a column in which he regretted that, in spite of Ms Wong’s excellent reporting, her opinion on the pure laine issue should not have appeared in the news article. Such commentary, he said, should have been printed separately, if at all, as an "analysis."

Ms Wong was distraught that the Globe did not support her. Her article had passed through all of the Globe’s regular stages of editorial scrutiny. Although she had always thought of herself as a stong person – and had been seen as such by most other people, including her readers – the feeling of being abandoned by her employer of nearly twenty years caused her emotional state to deteriorate rapidly. Soon, she found herself plunged into a major depression that lasted for about two years – a time that included protracted battles with the Globe’s management who, refusing to acknowledge that sickness prevented her from working for that length of time, eventually fired her.

In Ms Wong’s account of this long ordeal, we get the symptoms of depression: the faulty memory, the inability to organize, to keep appointments, the difficulty sleeping, the tears, the rages. There’s also the toll on Ms Wong’s long-suffering (very) husband and her two teenage sons. We sit in on meetings with a family doctor, who prescribed sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Ms Wong refused anti-depressants because she couldn’t accept the diagnosis of depression. When she finally did, after consenting to sessions with a psychiatrist, she tried several anti-depressants. In one 23-month period she received 29 prescriptions to deal with various symptoms. At the worst of it, she was taking 22 pills a day. The efficacy of the anti-depressants was doubtful, in Ms Wong’s experience. She found that talk therapy with the psychiatrist was more notably helpful.

Meanwhile, the Globe kept sending her peremptory notices by courrier, demanding her return to work and threatening cessation of sick pay and benefits. Ms Wong kept receiving phone calls from an "intervention specialist" at Manulife. Ms Wong never met this person who was trying to arrange for her return to work as soon as possible. One thing that the Globe couldn’t accept was that Ms Wong’s travels, to promote her book Beijing Confidential were, as recommended by her doctors, conducive to her recovery. The company had Ms Wong video taped at public functions and turned the tapes over to a psychiatriast who, without meeting Ms Wong, declared that she was clearly fit to work.

It comes as no suprise to Globe readers that Ms Wong tells a story well. She’s very good with anecdotes. She also knows enough to lighten this bleak tale with the occasional touch of humour. For instance, when she’s talking about a music group in which she played the flute, she says that their performances took place mainly at retirement homes "where the audiences were suitably captive and hearing-impaired." She lets us in on a poignant encounter with former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, where both he and Ms Wong, in an unexpected exchange, revealed something of their souls.

Ms Wong’s story is important, not just in terms of her personal struggle but also in terms of its societal implications. She discusses, for instance, the difficulty of diagnosing depression and the consequent lack of akcnowledgement of it as a legitimate illness. (Ironically, the Globe, not long after its battle with Ms Wong, published a series of articles about the importance of recognizing the perils of depression in the workplace.) Ms Wong gives information on the prevalence of depression in society and the history of its treatment. These sections, larded with statistics, are the parts of the book that I sometimes skimmed, even though I recognized their importance in anchoring the piece, as journalism, in hard facts.

I did find some journalistic flaws, though. Ms Wong speaks, at one point, of having taken a short, unpaid leave to write a book about the minimum wage. She says that the Globe was demanding payment for her old notes from the maid series. It’s not clear what that’s about. The reader’s left to make some rather huge inferences. Could it be that you have to pay for notes that you’re going to use for your own profit if the notes are based on work you did while on salary? If that’s the issue, I think Ms Wong should have made it clear. (Surprising that such an oversight could have gone unnoticed at the manuscript stage, given that Ms Wong thanks so very many people for reading it before publication; maybe the problem is that most of her early readers were journalists familiar with this point and they forgot that the rest of us aren’t.)

Another place where there’s a lack of clarity is towards the end of the book when Ms Wong talks about many arbitration processes that have been set up between herself and the Globe. Why are there so many and what was each of them about? I realize, though, that Ms Wong may be prevented from giving much detail on these matters because gag orders were very often imposed on her.

My bigger problem with the book has to do with what might be called Ms Wong’s persona. The trouble is that she’s presenting herself – quite legitimately – as a victim and yet she doesn’t easily win my sympathy. Partly that’s because there are certain Well, duh! moments in her journey of self discovery. At one point she says that her sister pointed out to her that our happiness should come from within ourselves, not from our job. That seems to be a real revelation for Ms Wong. You want to ask what planet she’s been living on.

And then there’s her response to psychiatry. She seems to be the kind of old-fashioned patient who looks on the psychiatrist as some kind of god, someone who has all the right answers, someone who can tell you what’s ok to do and what’s not, even more bizarrely, what’s ok to feel and what’s not. For instance, her shrink assures her that it’s normal to feel a bit vindictive when one of her former bosses at the Globe gets fired. Does anybody approach psychiatry this way these days? Isn’t this the kind of slavish patient-shrink relationship that gave the profession a bad name? It could be that the nature of Ms Wong’s illness caused her to be so dependent upon her psychiatrist but it doesn’t help me to relate to her.

Another aspect of the problem could be that I, like other Globe readers, perhaps, came to think of her as a feisty woman and that I have trouble, therefore, buying her "poor me" line. Or is it simply that she, being a journalist rather than a novelist, is better at conveying the outward story rather than the inward turmoil? There’s a kind of repetitive, dogged detailing to the book. A kind of "First-I-did-this-then-I-did-that" type of writing. So many tears. So many rages. Ms Wong quotes several other writers on the subject of their depression: Joan Didion, Andrew Solomon, William Styron, Virginia Woolf. The excerpts from their writings sound deeper, more thoughtful, the feelings expressed in more interesting ways than in Ms Wong’s book.

Or, could the problem be, simply, that this book illustrates one of the potential pitfalls of self-publishing? The book had been scheduled for publication by Doubleday. It was almost on the point of being sent to the printer when some higher-ups in the company became uncomfortable with Ms Wong’s treatment of the Globe. She didn’t see how she could whitewash her war with the newspaper’s management. Her story wouldn’t have made any sense in an anodyne version. So she published it herself. It may be significant the the Doubleday advance publicity for the book had described it as having 352 pages. Ms Wong’s self-published version has 263 pages. Could this, then, be a case of too many words squeezed onto each page? Self-publishing writers can be tempted to do this to cut down on expenses. This can mean that there are too many incidents crammed into too small a space. In this case, that could have the effect of making the tears and the rages, more monotonous – like a drum beat – than they would be if the material had been spread more comfortably over more pages.

Ms Wong’s book concludes with what could be conidered a happy ending (for her, in any case). The Globe, having been sued by her, finally caved. She received a big settlement for an undisclosed sum. She insisted that the agreement include the explicit statement – one that she was allowed to make public – that her employers recognized that she had been legitimately absent from work because of sickness. She wryly notes that she was lucky enough to get out just in time. Massive layoffs soon took place at the Globe, as at all newspapers. She allows that some people even gossipped that her settlement nearly bankrupted the Globe. Although she tries to keep her account of her dealings with the management as balanced and matter-of-fact as possible, I’m not sure that she’s ultimately quite fair to the Globe. "No one was safe at the newspaper," she says. "One day you’re golden, the next day you’re garbage." What does she want? It’s a business, not a religious commune.

While the book does say a lot about the way depression is handled – or isn’t – in our society, the story’s moral, if it could be called that, is that we have too great a tendency to define a person by the work he or she does. Ms Wong often mentions that her work was paramount to her. Journalism was her core. Work, she admits, came before family. Now Ms Wong sees that we shouldn’t let ourselves be defined by our work. She quotes the Mandarin saying: Zou ma guan hua, meaning "viewing flowers from a galloping horse." The point being: you gotta get down off that galloping horse of professionalsim and smell them.

Note: A Globe article on July 6/13 states that an arbitrator has ruled that Ms Wong must pay back the settlement from the newspaper because in Out of the Blue she violated the terms of confidentiality pertaining to the agreement.  Ms Wong protests that arbitration process was "unfair."

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com