Dilettante's Diary

Aug 21/16

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

Reviewed here: Florence Foster Jenkins (Movie); Maybe It Was the Distance (Short Fiction); Prize Song from Die Meistersinger (Radio); The Green Road (Novel); Being Mortal (Medicine); Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit (Anthropology); Writing About Your Life (Memoir); The Highly Sensitive Person (Psychology); The Secret of Annexe 3 (Mystery)

Florence Foster Jenkins (Movie) written by Nicholas Martin; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg and Rebecca Ferguson; with Stanley Townsend, Nina Arianda, Brid Brennan and many others.

From the tidbits about Florence Foster Jenkins that have been reaching us in recent years – mainly through CBC Radio – the woman appears to be something of a phenomenon, an anomaly, a mystery. How is it that someone so lacking in the singing talent that she longed for could push herself into the limelight, get attention and recognition for her abysmal attempts at performing, be oblivious to the ridicule incumbent on her efforts, and remain a subject of our puzzled attention seventy years later?

Surely a movie about such a woman, if it were going to earn any respect from us, would show her not as a freak to be laughed at – although, frankly, it’s impossible not to laugh now and then – but would portray her as a complex human being and would help us to understand how her highly questionable achievement came about.

To some extent, this movie succeeds admirably in that respect. As it fills in the context of Madame Jenkins’ life, what happened to her doesn’t seem so utterly implausible or outrageous. There are hints that she may actually have been a reasonably good singer at one time, that she is trying to make a comeback now, in the 1940s, when she’s in her mid 70s. She has lots of money (inherited from her father) to help make this happen. She can pay an assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera to coach her. As the founder of a musical appreciation group known as The Verdi Club, she’s recognized as an important force in the cultural life of New York. She’s a personal friend of Arturo Toscanini who hits her up for a bit of cash when his musical endeavours are under-funded.

Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a failed actor, makes sure that only sympathetic souls are admitted to her performances and he pays off newspaper critics who can be relied upon to produce glowing (if not exactly factual) notices. As for the recording of her singing that has come down to us as one of the weirdest novelties in the musical world, it was never meant to be distributed publicly. It was something she’d made – on the spur of the moment – as a gift to the members of her music appreciation group. It was only through the malevolence of her mockers that the recording was released to the media.

If any actor could bring this person to believable and endearing life, you might know that Merly Streep would be the one. She even does her own singing – if you can call it that. Ms. Streep makes Madame Jenkins (as she was always called) batty and eccentric, yet kind and generous. You end up admiring her bravery for carrying on in her own inimitable, if misguided, way. When cruel reality threatens to encroach on this woman’s sense of life, she has a gracious way of simply averting her gaze.

The movie thus presents a more nuanced, compassionate view of Madame Jenkins than does Peter Quilter’s boffo play Glorious! (See review on DD page dated Dec 11/06). We’re informed that Madame Jenkins and her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, have a spiritual marriage that doesn’t include sex. After tucking her into bed, he goes off to spend the nights at his own apartment (which she pays for). We’re led to believe that Madame Jenkins understands that "love comes in many forms." It eventually appears, though, that she may not see their love as having quite the form that it has for Mr. Bayfield: a young girlfriend sharing his bed.

As the husband, Hugh Grant supplies the requisite affection and support, but there’s an extra layer to his acting that makes the character particularly intriguing. I haven’t kept up with Mr. Grant’s career in recent years but it appears to me that he’s capable now of doing far more interesting work in middle age than as a young romantic lead. In this movie, you get the feeling that, while he’s playing the perfect English Gentleman, the suave and considerate toff – what you might call a typical Hugh Grant role – he’s just a bit tired of it and finding it difficult, actually, to keep up the veneer of charm. It’s a rivetting performance. There’s a moment when he’s reciting poetry to Madame Jenkins as she’s falling asleep in bed and you catch a glimpse – just a fleeting expression – of his disgust with himself and pity for her. That look pierces your heart.

Possibly the more memorable performance, though, is that of Simon Helberg in the role of Cosm McMoon, the naive young pianist hired to accompany Madame Jenkins. I can imagine the filmmakers auditioning actors for this role. The scenario would be outlined: the filmmakers would tell the actor that his character, the pianist, would take his place at the piano, play an introduction to a piece and then his ears would be assulted for the first time ever by Madame Jenkins’ voice. The actor would be asked to show how he could register: shock, dismay, puzzlement and the struggle to suppress laughter. Mr. Helberg does all that unforgettably. His lean, saturnine face, with its sharp features, particularly a prominent nose, is as expressive as the countenances of some of stars of the silent movie era. Throughout the movie, he offers a panoply of astonished – and astonishing – facial reactions. He comes close to mugging and over-acting without ever quite crossing the line.

And yet, the fact that he comes so close to that line signals what bothers me about the movie. It’s a question of tone. Yes, there are poignant moments when we feel great sympathy for Madame Jenkins; we see her as a woman who has lived courageously in the face of a private sorrow. And her husband has a speech that shows that he deserves credit for facing up to his own limitations. But the movie keeps introducing elements that jar with the humane themes. For instance, those ludicrous tableaux that Madame Jenkins staged for the music lovers at the Verdi club. One of them featured her descending from on high as an angel to inspire composer Stephen Foster. How could anybody have taken such kitsch with a straight face? And why do Madame Jenkins’ fans, mostly high society matrons and dowagers, seem like dotty caricatures? How could they all have been duped by her supposed talent, her fortune not withstanding? The point is made early on that Madame Jenkins is very fond of potato salad. So we get a shot, during a posh luncheon at her home, where her maid is filling plates from a bathtub full of potato salad. It gets a laugh but come on! Is Madame Jenkins' life a farce or what?

There’s never a moment when the movie isn’t entertaining and engaging but it leaves me not knowing what to make of Madame Jenkins’ story. Far be it for me to espouse some ancient theory about how a piece of theatre should give us some morale about how life should be lived. But I came away from this movie feeling frustrated by the inability to make sense of what we’d been shown. Here was a woman living an illusion and several of her enablers were benefitting from her financial largesse. Presumably the justification was that they loved her so much. Is that a kind of love that we can endorse, a love that leaves someone living a dream that’s going to cause great harm to the dreamer when it comes crashing down?

 

Maybe It Was the Distance (Short Fiction) by Jonathan Safran Foer, The New Yorker, June 6 & 13, 2016

Two male Jewish cousins in middle age, one a New Yorker, the other an Israeli, meet to renew their friendship after several years apart. They review family lore, their boyhood pranks, parenting, politics and the state of the world. How can you offer a pithy comment that sums up the effect of a story that packs so much character, culture, comedy, pathos, satire and astute observation into about twelve pages?

Just a couple of examples of the marvellous writing:

Perhaps it was existential constipation, but the Israelis didn’t seem to give a shit about anything. All Jacob’s family ever did was give shits. They were shit-givers.

And:

Jacob was the only one who referred to the Israeli cousins as our Israeli cousins. To his wife, Julia, to Max, and to their older son, Sam, they were the Israeli cousins. Jacob felt no desire for ownership of them, and too much association made him itchy, but he felt that they were owed warmth commensurate with the thickness of blood. Or he felt that he should feel that. It would have been easier if they’d been easier.

 

Prize Song from Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg, "Backstage," CBC Radio Two, Sunday, August 14, 2016

In a program of selections built around the theme of "Time," host Ben Heppner mentioned a favourite watch. Its manufacturers had named this model the "Meistersinger." That reference allowed him to sneak in a recording of his performance of this aria from his first great success on the operatic stage. I’m often irked by some of the schlock that Mr. Heppner plays on his program. But this recording made me think: if this man never did anything else with his life, this would be enough! The prize song from Die Meistersinger can give you the feeling that tenors are reaching for the high notes. Not Mr. Heppner. He’s on top of the piece, riding the wave right to the triumphant conclusion.

 

The Green Road (Novel) by Anne Enright, 2015

Anne Enright has chosen a rather unusual – not to say experimental or bizarre – structure for her novel about the Madigan family. In the first part of the book, each chapter focuses on one of the five people in the family: the mother, the two sons and the two daughters. (The father has died.) Any given chapter may look at one person’s childhood or at some crucial point in his or her adulthood. The second half of the book deals with the siblings’ return to their mother’s home for Christmas and their attempts to come to grips with the issues she’s presenting at this time of her life.

The only problem – if it can be called that – with the first part of the book’s focus on a different person in each chapter is that it invites a reader to pick a favourite, not just a preferred character among the four siblings and their mother, but a chapter in which both the writing and the setting are most appealing. For me, the vote goes unquestionably to the first chapter, which describes one daughter’s interaction with her grandparents on their farm in the rough terrain of Western Ireland, near Galway. Sometimes, I’ve thought of Ms. Enright as a writer with a harsh voice, not the gentle brogue that we often hear in Irish writing. There’s no question, though, about the love and kindness that flow back and forth between this girl and her grandparents.While some of the details of farm life are stark, the ambiance is almost idyllic.

Passages, such as this description of the girl’s view from her grandparents’ farm, had me Googling budget flights to Shannon:

Hanna loved the little house at Boolavaun: four rooms, a porch full of geraniums, a mountain out back and, out the front, a sky full of weather. If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to a view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away to the south. This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – the rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into the field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.

And if you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up in the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray.

Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.

The second chapter tells of life in Manhattan where one of the Madigan sons is living in the early 1980s. That, of course, was the era of the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Other writers have recreated the unbearable heartbreak of that scene and Ms. Enright’s version, not surprisingly, compares well with the best of them. What gives her treatment of the subject an uncanny quality is her choice of narrative voice. We’re hearing the story, at this point, from some unnamed gay man who frequently refers to his community in the first person plural. That gives the account an oddly plangent, spectral quality. It’s almost as though the anonymous narrator is one of the people who was fated soon to disappear from the scene. In his voice, we hear about the Madigan son almost as a footnote. He’s seen as an attractive young Irishman whose sexuality is ambiguous and who turns up at lots of gay gatherings. The fact that we’re seeing him from someone else’s point of view adds mystery and intrigue to his character.

Another chapter focusses on the other son, a doctor who is working in Mali with some NGO, possibly Mdecins Sans Frontires. The main element of his story at this point in his life is the contention over a stray dog that his girlfriend has brought into their home. The presence of the dog upsets the Muslim household staff and that uneasiness is reflected in the deteriorating relationship between the doctor and the woman. This chapter was not as appealing to me. There was a flatness to it, as though the writer weren’t totally immersed in the subject matter. It felt like she was trying to create a world too far removed from her personal experience.

No such problem with the other two chapters in the first part of the book. One of them deals with one of the daughters who, in middle age, is scheduled for a mammogram. Her daily life, her worries and the feel of her relationships with her husband and her kids are conveyed convincingly. Clearly, Ms. Enright knows this territory intimately. As she does in the chapter about Rosaleen, the elderly mother of the Madigan siblings. We’re totally caught up in her wandering thoughts, her shifting moods, her whimsy and her melancholy.

In the second part of the book, as the children prepare to gather at their mother’s home, we find out more about their lives since we last saw each of them. As you might expect from Ms. Enright, we’re treated to many subtle aperus regarding character and situations. One of the sons has been consulting a Toronto psychiatrist who’s endowed with some "sweet" Canadian characteristics. Some interesting social commentary comes from the family members who’ve been away from Ireland for decades. They note that the country seems to be awash in money now; everyone’s acting like "a returned Yank, even if they’re living up the road."

By way of plot, tension is building around the arrangements for the family’s Christmas dinner. That anxiety is exacerbated by Rosaleen’s threat to sell Ardeevin, the family’s home – a prospect that causes not a little consternation among the siblings. As Dan sees it: "The sun rose at the front and set at the back of Ardeevin, wherever he was in the world, and when he came back, the house made sense in a way that nothing else did."

But it’s a lot harder to make sense of Rosaleen. One of her daughters admits that Rosaleen’s a difficult woman to "psychologise." She’s said to be "out of kilter." Someone suggests that she may be bipolar. Facts are irrelevant to her; she’s not interested in world news, only local gossip. She’s inconsistent: at the top of one page, she’s complaining that there’s no one to love her but, at the bottom of the page, she’s rejoicing in being on her own. She acknowledges to herself that she loves her kids but she also recognizes that, for some reason, she can’t be nice to them. Is that why one of her sons notes that he and his siblings have "small hearts"?

Ultimately, Rosaleen’s baffled children can’t decide what to do about her. Admittedly, that’s the reality for many adults vis a vis their elderly parents. In a novel, though, you hope for some kind of insight, some kind of understanding that will lead to, if not hope, at least resignation. But maybe Ms. Enright is hinting that there’s no point in trying to bring this story to a resounding conclusion. Here she conveys Rosaleen’s thoughts about the way her deceased husband, Pat, looked at it all:

...no difference between the different kinds of yesterday. No difference between a man and his ghost, between a real heifer and a cow that was waiting for the end of the world. It was all just a way of talking. It was the rise and fall in the telling, a rounding out before the finish. A flourish. A shiver.

 

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Medicine and Social Issues) by Atul Gawande, 2014

Atul Gawande is the physician and surgeon who often writes insightful and compelling New Yorker articles on health care in America. In this book, he argues that the medical establishment is failing to handle the needs of dying people with compassion and appropriate expertise.

In Dr. Gawande’s view, doctors have become highly skilled at curing some diseases and minimizing the damaging effects of some others. But the medics have become so focussed on "fixing" problems that they’re at a loss as to how to handle patients whose illnesses have become "unfixable," patients for whom death is inevitable. As a result people are not served well by medicine in their final years, months and days. We need a vast change in attitudes and techniques to make people’s end days more comfortable and more humane.

A passage about halfway through the book could be seen as a summary of Dr. Gawande’s theme:

Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet – and this is the painful paradox – we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than half a century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As a result, people are cheated of the chance to experience some of the most meaningful aspects of life, he says:

Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the "dying role" and its importance to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame.

Before Dr. Gawande gets to his thoughts about the final stages of life, he spends some time on our treatment of the elderly. The book’s first chapter offers a comparison of two different cultural approaches. His wife’s grandmother, Alice Hobson, lived independently in her eighties in a big, rambling house in Virginia. She drove her own car, did her own errands, worked out at the neighbourhood gym. To Doctor Gawande’s father, also a doctor, it was inconceivable that this woman’s children let her live alone this way. Back in India, his own father, Sitaram Gawande, lived to the age of 110 in his family home on his farm, surrounded by offspring and descendants. Riding a horse to check his crops even when he was 100, he literally ruled the roost until his dying days. Until then, whatever help he needed was readily available at his beckoning.

The unsuspecting reader might think that the author is going to extol the virtues of this style of living for the elderly over the American system that seems heartless and cool, by comparison. However, Dr. Gawande gains our respect for his analytical mind by giving full weight to the disadvantages of both systems, as well as their merits. Life with his grandfather could be difficult, he points out. The venerable patriarch had to have final approval on all family decisions pertaining to finances, marriages and such. At one point, he got so angry with the son and the son’s wife who were living with him, that he fled the house and refused to speak to them for several months. By comparison, the American grandmother’s solitary splendour doesn’t look so bad, although it eventually developed that she couldn’t handle her deteriorating condition on her own.

Then came the difficult search for the right kind of retirement home, or "Seniors’ Residence." In his treatment of these sorts of institutions, Dr. Gawande makes what strikes me as the only misjudgement in this book. The assumption is that, almost without exception, such places are dreary and objectionable. They’re too regimented and run by staff who don’t take the residents’ genuine needs into account. At least, that’s the way Dr. Gawande sees it. I beg to differ. I’ve known several elderly people who have been delighted with the communal residences that they moved into after giving up their own homes. Some even say that they’d have moved sooner, had they known how pleasant living in a seniors’ facility could be.

Dr. Gawande does, admittedly, manage to find a few arrangements for seniors that he thinks might be more tolerable. Situations, for instance, where seniors (presumably well-off ones) have banded together in small groups to purchase or build facilities on a co-op basis, to hire their own staff who, looking on the seniors as their employers, are highly motivated to come up with programs and routines that are agreeable to them. And Dr. Gawande does admire the initiative of a maverick doctor who, by way of an experiment, shook up the regimen in his nursing home with innovative programs that got the residents involved in things like keeping birds. But Dr. Gawande seems to think it takes tremendous ingenuity to establish or to find such places.

When he moves on to the main gist of his book – his assessment of the over-medicalization of the dying process, I – having none of the medical expertise or experience that he draws on – wouldn’t dare to challenge his assessment of the situation. One of the most telling aspects of his handling of the subject is his admitting to his own failures in this regard. Sometimes, when he was faced with a patient whose case was hopeless – this tended to be when he was a younger doctor – he tried to cover up his discomfort with a lot of medical gobbledy-gook about possible treatments and hopeful (but implausible) improvements. His training hadn’t enabled him to simply state the truth of the matter to the patient: that he or she was reaching the end of the line and that what should be done now was to find out how the patient’s remaining time could be spent as comfortably and rewardingly as possible. That calls for a sincere and candid conversation between patient and physician about what the patient’s priorities are now.

While Dr. Gawande handles the philosophical and ethical aspects of his subject adroitly, the book is at its most enjoyable in the discussion of individual cases. And never more so than when Dr. Gawande’s father was faced with the diagnosis of a cancerous tumour in his spine. Here, again, the need for the crucial conversation: would he be willing to undergo surgery that could have devastating effects or would he choose to carry on as usual – performing surgeries himself – until the cancer forced him to stop working? He opted to take his chances with delaying the surgery. That decision worked well for him; he got several more years of active involvement in his profession before the disease forced him to stop.

The most interesting aspect of that case for me was how it struck the younger Dr. Gawande and his parents when the dad’s condition was first diagnosed. All three of them doctors, they sat in stupefied silence, just as you or I would, when an oncologist with a focus on technical information hit them with a dizzying array of possible treatments and medications.

A book like this could hardly be expected to end without a consideration of medically assisted suicide. Dr. Gawande does touch on it briefly. Although he grants that there may be cases where it’s necessary to help people end their unbearable suffering, he’s no fan of the proliferation of assisted suicide in some jurisdictions. The fact that, by 2012, one in thirty-five Dutch people sought assisted suicide is not a measure of success, he says. "It is a measure of failure. Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end."

What’s required, then, is better palliative care. Significantly, Dr. Gawande cites studies showing that people who stopped treatment and entered hospice programs survived just as long as those who continued treatment in hospital. For some conditions, hospice care, as compared to hospital treatment, seemed to extend life for weeks and even months longer. "The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer."

 

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Anthropology) by Jodi Magness, 2011

This book came to my attention via an advertisement for a more recent book by Jodi Magness, one about the Jewish sources of Jesus’s teachings. It struck me that, until I could get my hands on that one, this earlier one might prove fascinating. I’ve long been intrigued by questions about the way of life that the New Testament offers tantalizing glimpses of. Having, myself, written a novel set in that era (I Give You My Word, Arcadie Books, 1998), I was keen to check my own impressions of the lifestyle with Professor Magness’ findings.

Jodi Magness, a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does, in fact, offer a lot of information about the late Second Temple period in Palestine, i.e. the years spanning the 1st century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. Professor Magness acknowledges that there are many gaps in our knowledge of life in those times. However, we do have some sources that she makes abundant use of: the writings of the historian Flavius Josephus, the documents left by the Essens at Qumran (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls), the New Testament and the findings of archaeological excavations. Professor Magness also resorts a great deal to the rabinnical commentaries of the times.

This book, however, does not provide an easy travelogue through that era. The going can get rough in Professor Magness’s slog through academic subject matter, comparing and contrasting opinions on minute details of daily life as you move from one scholar’s opinion to another’s for pages on end. So I didn’t read the entire book with my usual assiduous attention. I skipped through, studying the sections that struck me as particularly interesting. It wouldn’t be honest, then, for me to claim to be presenting anything like a genuine review of the book here. But I do want to make note of this kind of reading matter in Dilettante’s Diary. You can take these comments, then, as personal impressions of some aspects of the book rather than a thorough appraisal of the work as a whole.

Some of the facts that especially interested me:

  • great differences in almost every aspect of daily life – from clothing to burial – between the practices of the rich and the poor
  • the Essenes demonstrated a much stricter attitude to laws and rituals than anyone else did
  • some people wore a loin cloth as an undergarment but others didn’t
  • male nudity was common in situations like working in the fields
  • criminals were stripped nude for crucifixion
  • luxury latrines in bathhouses consisted of seats perched above flowing streams of water
  • a toilet in a private dwelling was a seat over a cesspit that also received household garbage
  • people who had no access to toilet facilities defecated almost anywhere (we know this from Roman inscriptions warning people not to relieve themselves in certain spots)
  • burial of the rich was usually in family caves or tombs but for the poor it was in pits or trenches in the ground

In the scholarly context, Professor Magness has done admirable work in her painstaking search through many documents to try to get as close as possible to the precise truth about such matters. But I found it off-putting to read all the judgements, for instance, about whether and in what circumstances it was permissable to spit to the left or to the right. And how purity and impurity are imputed to various objects and situations according to infinitesimal distinctions. It exasperates me to think that, in the history of civilization, religious authorities have spent so much time and energy splitting hairs over such matters and then imposing their decisions on people as supposedly having some important meaning for human life.

One aspect of the book that I did find particularly engaging was Professor Magness’ discussion of the burial of Jesus. Professor Magness – quite rightly for a scholar – doesn’t tip her hand as to whether she is a believer, either Jewish or Christian. And it’s not entirely clear to me whether she accepts the historicity of the gospels. At times, it seems to me that she puts more faith in the factual reliability of the gospels than one would expect of a historian. Regarding the death and burial of Jesus, however, she treads carefully, noting that, although archaeology cannot prove the facts as related in the gospel accounts, they do accord with the archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

Regarding the events following Jesus’ death, Professor Magness notes that, since the Sabboth was approaching quickly, Jesus’ body had to be disposed of without delay. There wasn’t time to dig a grave for it. Hence the offer of the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, to allow the body to be put in his family’s tomb. Following the Sabboth, however, the family members would not have wanted the body of this peasant to remain there. They would have seen to it that the body was removed and consigned to an earthen pit, the treatment given to the corpse of any non-elite person. That’s why Jesus’ friends, on arriving the next morning, would have found the tomb empty. And why, after the earth having done its work with the remains, there would be no lasting trace of the body.

Professor Magness gives no hint that she is hoping, in these comments, to stir up controversy over the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It seems to me, though, that her matter-of-fact observation, delivered in a neutral, non-committal tone of voice, could have far reaching consequences in terms of the world’s on-going sense of the Christian tradition.

 

Writing About Your Life (Memoir) by William Zinsser, 2004

The publishers’ blurb on the cover hails this as a "highly original book." Fair enough. But a more suitable description might be "extremely odd." Nevertheless, if this is William Zinsser’s final message to us, we need to pay attention. His On Writing Well has become one of the standard references for literary craft. Published in 1976, it went through several editions and sold over 1.5 million copies.

What we have here are some of the distinguished author’s memories of his life interspersed with advice to hopeful authors about how to write their own memoirs. Sounds like a not unreasonable plan for a book, right? But the resulting project leaves this reader somewhat at sea. It’s as though an elderly guy is rambling along about his adventures and then he suddenly remembers: oh, right, I’m supposed to be giving advice here! So he breaks off the narrative and throws in some pointers about the writing process. The reader in me who has been enjoying the narrative is tripped up by the interruption of the advice; the reader in me who wants the advice keeps wondering what the point of the narrative is.

Sometimes, Mr. Zinsser barely manages to make a connection between the book’s two purposes. A chapter about his Christian outlook seems to have nothing to offer the neophyte writer except to encourage him or her to write about what’s close to the heart. A long section about Mr. Zinsser’s emergence, late in life, as a professional jazz pianist doesn’t address an up-and-coming writer’s expectations, until Mr. Zinsser finally throws in a concluding remark about not caring about editors and publishers, the same way a musician doesn’t care about audiences. The concluding advice is to just do what you do "with gratitude and pleasure."

You end up wondering how such a strange book came about. In my imagination, the scenario may have gone something like this: some editors and publishers felt sure that William Zinsser, a renowned author and journalist (who died last year at the age of ninety-two), must have had some fascinating tales to tell about his life. For some reason, though, he didn’t want to write a straight-forward memoir. Maybe he was too modest. Maybe, as an editor himself, he’d been so impressed by many masterpieces of memoir that he felt he couldn’t match their quality. Maybe he didn’t have the energy to sustain such a project; that would be understandable, given that he was in his early eighties when this book was published. It seems that the solution was to round up a few favourite memories and, in order to fill out the book, to turn it into a sort of guideline for that type of writing.

In some instances, when Mr. Zinsser comments on a piece of memoir that he’s just given us, his remarks come dangerously close to patting himself on the back. Maybe that risk is inevitable when any artist speaks about his own work. The trouble here is that the educational or instructive context isn’t consistent; it’s not as if we’re in a classroom and the master is making notes on the board. Instead, it’s more like somebody is regaling us with amusing anecdotes, then suddenly steps back and says: wasn’t that clever, what I just did?

Adding to the somewhat disconcerting tone of the book, there’s a matter of formatting or editing. Many times, Mr. Zinsser finishes an engaging anecdote, then tells us "That article was published..." or "In that article...." As a reader, I’m like: huh? How was I supposed to know that I was reading a previously published article? In one place Mr. Zinsser starts a sentence with "Both of those articles..." but I’m at a loss to figure out what articles he’s referring to. A bit more explanation of Mr. Zinsser’s method of proceeding through the book would have helped. In some sections, the entire text is indented in a way that’s apparently intended to offer some guidance as to the context of the material but the system of indenting isn’t consistent enough for me to know how to interpret it.

Mr. Zinsser certainly does give some good advice about memoirs. He reminds writers to observe the unities of time, place and point of view. No hopping around among other people’s viewpoints. No jumping ahead into the future, unless briefly. No extended visits to locales other than the one that’s your main focus. One chapter entitled "How to Write a Memoir" is packed with the kind of advice that you might have expected to be the gist of the whole book. Don’t just dish out facts and events, says Mr. Zinsser, tell the reader how you felt about them, how they affected you. Probably the most crucial thing Mr. Zinsser has to tell the prospective writer is: "If you use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey."

By far the meat of the book, however, consists of the events, situations and people that Mr. Zinsser has chosen to recall for us. Many of his offerings of memoir are entertaining and well written. Notable among them is the story of his playing a small role in a Woody Allen film. Also, Mr. Zinsser’s misadventures while travelling as a guest lecturer in academia are amusing. In the case of such a revered writer, however, it’s sad to say that some of the reminiscing doesn’t come off the page. Although Mr. Zinsser clearly has fond memories of his high school teachers, they don’t emerge here as characters that we come to know. Similarly, some of Mr. Zinsser’s war memories have an I-guess-you-had-to-be-there quality. Although the same could be said of some of the travel writing, one of the most interesting sections of the book is the one where Mr. Zinsser comments on some jaunty prose that he penned as a young man about a trip with his wife to Africa. Mr. Zinsser points out that the condescending attitude of the white traveller having to endure the comic mishaps among the "natives" would be unacceptable today.

On reflection, I can see how this book would please people who know Mr. Zinsser (perhaps including the celebs who provided blurbs for the cover of the book) and who might regret not getting a full-blown memoir from him. This book would have to suffice; and it would do so pleasantly enough. So why my disgruntlement with the book? Near the very end, Mr. Zinsser happens to make the comment that, as a jazz pianist, he doesn’t like some basic chords that are standbys for a composer like Mozart: "But the truth is," he admits, "I don’t much like Mozart; my guys are Rachmaninoff and Ravel." Not liking Mozart? Preferring Ravel? It’s impossible for me to get inside the mind of such a person. Maybe that tells us why I was at odds with this book so much of the time.

 

The Highly Sensitive Person (Psychology) by Elaine Aron, 1996

A friend suggested this book might interest me. I’m not sure whether that was a compliment or not.

Back in the early 1990s, Elaine Aron, a psychologist, came up with the idea that some people may be innately more sensitive to certain stimuli than other people are. Perhaps this means that the more sensitive ones have difficulty navigating their way through obstacles that seem trifling to other people. Might these sensitive people be helped by finding out that their troubles in this regard have nothing to do with weak character or personality flaws but are directly attributable to inherent characteristics that can’t be denied?

Through many studies and experiments, Dr. Aron came up with a questionnaire to determine who these highly sensitive persons might be. Some of the outstanding characteristics: you’re easily startled by sharp noises; you have low tolerance of caffeine; you’re often overwhelmed by hectic activity. The list goes on for about twenty-five questions, most of them revolving around these sorts of sensibilities.

In many ways, Dr. Aron’s book anticipates Susan Cain’s 2012 book about introverts, Quiet. In that book, Ms. Cain does, in fact, acknowledge Dr. Aron’s work. Although Dr. Aron’s book has sold over a million copies and has been translated into many languages, it hasn’t, in my perception, achieved anything like the acclaim of Ms. Cain’s. Maybe in 1996, when Dr. Aron’s book appeared, the world wasn’t ready to pay much attention to quiet, retiring types. Or maybe the greater success of Ms. Cain’s book has something to do with the fact that it’s better.

No matter how sympathetic I tried to be to Dr. Aron’s thesis (and yes, since you’re probably wondering, I did score highly on the sensitivity test), there’s a  cloying aspect to the writing. Am I really supposed to tell my doctor that she has to take special care when treating me because I’m so sensitive to pain? Is it plausible that I would sit a potential partner down and explain to him or her that, lest things go awry, I need careful discussion about the dynamics of our relationship and extra time to process everything that is said between us?

Maybe my recoiling from these sorts of suggestions is simply a case of internalizing the kind of bullying that the rest of the world often shows towards highly sensitive people. Maybe I’m simply buying into the conventional bias: you have to be tough, you gotta be strong, you can’t look like a sissy. And yet, I do find that Dr. Aron does make some helpful suggestions for types like me: recognize that you need more quiet time, don’t overload your agendas, do what you can to space out stressful activities. Be kinder to yourself, in other words. That I can definitely buy. I also appreciate Dr. Aron’s pointing out that we sensitive types are more attuned to subtleties, we notice more. In other words, we have lots to offer to the world.

But I’m left with an icky feeling about the book as a whole. At times, it seems to me that Dr. Aron is trying too strenuously to make "hard science" of her insights. Too many instances of backing up points with studies that don’t strike me as entirely convincing. And those suggestions for navigating your way through the day’s minefields! Many of them sound precious and self-indulgent. The book dissatisfies me, then, both as a scientific work and as a self-help manual. Maybe the problem is that the material is streched too thin for a book. Maybe some agent got together with Dr. Aron and they said: hey, we can make a real blockbuster of a bestseller with this. Good idea, but not enough material, perhaps.

 

The Secret of Annexe 3 (Mystery) by Colin Dexter, 1986

A clean, new paperback edition of this one beckoned to me from the library shelves. Could it be one of the old-style mysteries that we don’t get anymore? I had a vague memory of having read one of Colin Dexter’s novels featuring Inspector Morse but there’s no record in Dilettante’s Diary of my impressions. And I was fairly sure I’d seen at least one or two episodes of the Inspector Morse tv series starring John Thaw. They’d been pretty good, as I remembered.

The Secret of Annexe 3 opens on the New Year’s Eve festivities at a country hotel near Oxford. Everybody’s dressed in fancy costumes. As the party winds down, a married man, decked out as a Rastafarian, is found murdered in the room allotted to him and his wife. It takes Morse and his cohorts a long time to sort through the comings and goings of all the revellers, of course. Lots of suspects, lots of confusion, in that everybody was in disguise. Plus issues about fresh snowfall and footprints. This is, then, the kind of mystery that focusses mainly on one setting and a limited cast of characters, in the style of the classic British mysteries.

But were they all so over-written? I almost abandoned this one on account of the fussy, affected writing. You get the feeling that we’re supposed to enjoy the arch style of flinging words around.

Here’s Mr. Dexter’s account of a prostitute’s transactions with a client:

She’d gauged him pretty well correctly from the start: a man of rather passive, voyeuristic tendencies rather than one of the more thrusting operatives in the fornication field. Indeed, the aggregate time of his two (hitherto) perfunctory penetrations could hardly have exceeded a couple of minutes, and of that Philippa had been duly glad. He might, of course, ‘after a few minutes’ rest’ as the man had put it, rise to more sustained feats of copulatory stamina; but blessedly (from Philippa’s point of view) the few minutes’ rest had extended itself to a prolonged peeriod of stertorous slumber.

Is this supposed to be amusing? Is it supposed to convey flavour, flair, a certain finesse on the part of the author? Why not just say what happened, without the literary flourishes? Could it be that the tone of mystery writing has changed drastically in the thirty years since this one was published? Or is it a question of changed mores? Did Mr. Dexter, given the conventions of thirty decades past, think it was impossible to write about a commercial sexual transaction without sneering?

Maybe so. But the coy, precious tone creeps into many passages, such as this one:

Mrs. Mary Webster, the senior administrative assistant who kept a very firm (if not unfriendly) eye upon the forty or so women who sat each day in the large first-storey room overlooking the playing fields of Summerfields Preparatory School, had not returned to her accustomed chair after the coffee-break on the morning of January 6th. Most unsual! But it was the intelligence gleaned by Mrs. Bannister (a woman somewhat handicapped in life by a bladder of minimal capacity, but whose regular trips to the downstairs toilet afforded, by way of compensation, a fascinating window on the world) that set the whole room a-buzzing.

Too twee for me. So why did I (with some judicious skipping) hang in to the end of the book? To find out whodunnit, of course. Mr Dexter, in spite of his pretentious writing, did spark my curiosity to that extent. Mind you, the book’s replete with the clichs of the genre. Somebody keeps trying to remember some odd incident, some little detail that might provide a clue. We get the predictable autonomic responses: blood tingling in somebody’s veins, lips trembling...that sort of thing. But the solution to the mystery does turn out to be one of those clever twists in the tradition of the good old whodunnits of yore.

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