Dilettante's Diary

Sept 17/2016

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, 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: The Audience (Theatre), Gender Studies and Upside-Down Cake (Short Fiction), The Fixer and Suspsicion (Thrillers)

The Audience (Theatre) written by Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry; starring Helen Mirren; with Geoffrey Beevers, Bebe Cave, Michael Elwyn, Edward Fox, Maya Gerber, Haydn Gwynne, Richard McCabe, Nathaniel Parker, David Peart, Paul Ritter, Nell Williams, Rufus Wright; National Theatre HD Live Encore Broadcast, August 22, 2016. (Recorded in London, 2013)

Given the way Peter Morgan has been mining Queen Elizabeth II’s life for subject matter, he surely owes her some royalties. (Pun intended, if you like.) After the great success of The Queen, the 2006 movie starring Helen Mirren and written by Mr. Morgan, he has come up with another look at Her Majesty. The Audience is a collage of excerpts, as Mr. Morgan imagines them, from weekly interviews that the Queen has had with the Prime Ministers during her reign.

What would be the reasons for wanting to see a play like this? Would it offer anything other than some relief to that gnawing curiosity as to what goes on behind the royal curtain?

Well, yes, it does offer some other things.

One of the things that the play does best is the explication of the complementary roles of Prime Minister and Monarch. We learn that the Queen must always support the Prime Minister’s policies and decisions, in so far as public impressions go, regardless of what her private opinions might be. In the weekly interviews (they take place on Tuesdays, at 6:30 p.m.), she can challenge the PM, ask him or her for clarification, demur in terms of certain judgements, but she must always accept the PM’s final decisions.

The play makes intriguing insinuations about how these discussions on various issues may have gone. In the absence of verifiable facts, though, we find ourselves evaluating the play’s presentation of something we do know a bit about: the Queen’s personality. Ms. Mirren has, after her Oscar winning performance in The Queen, become something of an expert at conveying the physicality of the Queen: posture, tone of voice, facial expression. In Mr. Morgan's version of Her Majesty, she's wry and witty. Her first line in the play establishes that. John Major (Paul Ritter), newly elected Prime Minister, is telling the Queen that all he ever wanted was to be ordinary. The Queen responds: "In what way do you feel that you have failed in this ambition?" It’s a wonderful line. Ms. Mirren delivers it crisply and beautifully.

But the character’s sharp, incisive quality is one of the problems with the piece, from my point of view. We all know that the Queen is credited with having a lively wit on occasion (usually in private gatherings) and Mr. Morgan stresses that to the max. In so doing, he has turned the Queen into a theatrical character – almost a cousin of Lady Bracknell. What’s missing is the more gracious, kindly side of the Queen.

One of the drawbacks of the play’s reaching for laughs is that it feels awfully thin at times. Some of the jokes are bargain-basement corny. In one exchange, for instance, the Prime Minister is telling the Queen that he doesn’t own a top hat and tails. The Queen asks: "What did you get married in?" The Prime Minister: "A church." When we see the corgis running across the stage, that counts as boffo material. As does the Queen’s mystification at the sound of a cell phone ringing in her purse.

All this flim-flam might be entertaining enough, except for the basic problem with the play: there’s no dramatic line through it. We’re not confronted at the outset, as we are in the best dramas, with a character who has a problem and whose attempts to solve it carry us through the play. Instead, we get a collection of set pieces. We see this character at certain times of her life when she’s showing different attitudes and opinions but we never feel caught up in her journey in a way that commits us, that provides theatrical catharsis.

That’s an inherent hazard in the context the playwright has chosen. These meetings are inimical to personal revelation. The Queen, not being allowed to show much of her true self in these situations, remains pretty much an icon. Even in Shakespeare’s plays about kings and queens, we get scenes where they reveal their true natures. Often this happens in mundane situations. The monarchs are getting ready for bed, or conferring with a spouse, or kibbitzing with a friend. Given Mr. Morgan’s chosen setting, there can be little or no such casual behaviour in this play. Not that I wanted to see the Queen chopping onions, necessarily, or tying her shoes, but I was tired of seeing her always in the perfectly poised royal role.

Even with its lack of a through-line, however, the play does eventually manage to connect us with the Queen on an emotional level. One of the first places where I felt something of that kind was the scene where the Queen kneels down privately to say The Lord’s Prayer. (A huge crisis was pending, the Suez fiasco, if I remember correctly.) At that moment, you believed that this woman was deeply troubled about a possible disaster that she could to nothing to avert. We also feel her dignified hurt when Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) belittles the concept of the Commonwealth, riding rough-shod over the Queen’s family’s pride and their history with the nation. It’s touching to learn (true or not?) that Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), the Labour PM who appeared to be a bit of an oaf at first, became the Queen’s favourite, simply because he was an honest diamond in the rough. One of the most poignant moments comes in one of the final scenes. Prime Minister David Cameron (Rufus Wright) is babbling away, until he looks across the room and sees that famous white head motionless and bowed in sleep. It’s one of those great moments in theatre: dialogue ceases, and the full effect comes in a simple, silent visual.

The key to the play’s ultimate success is the playwright’s brilliant decision to introduce the occasional appearance of a young actor portraying the Queen as a child. (These roles, at different times in the Queen’s youth, are played by Bebe Cave, Maya Gerber and Nell Williams). The Queen engages in conversation with her childhood self, reflecting on the fears and hopes she had back then, noting how differently her life has turned out from what she might have expected. What the play seems to be saying in the end is that this is a person who has lived a life that was difficult in its unique way, even though it might seem to be the most privileged life imaginable, and that she and the institution that she has so faithfully represented are worthy of respect and gratitude.

I think most people would leave the theatre agreeing with that.


Gender Studies (Short Fiction) by Curtis Sittenfeld; The New Yorker, August 29, 2016

A female university prof, on arriving in Kansas City for an academic conference, becomes involved with the guy who drives the shuttle bus from the airport to her hotel. Their personal connection stems from a series of mishaps and misunderstandings. There are such huge gaps in their respective levels of education, intelligence and attitudes that you feel that this cannot go well. In fact, the prof, in her mind, is making a joke of it all, thinking how hilarious it will sound when she tells her feminist friends about this escapade. What struck me most forcibly about the story, though, is that the writer is equally fair to both people. The shuttle driver, in spite of his deficits, comes across as a relatively honest, decent guy. You end up feeling bad for both of them.


Upside-Down Cake (Short Fiction) by Paul Theroux; The New Yorker, June 27, 2016

Siblings and their spouses have gathered at a restaurant to celebrate a mother’s ninetieth birthday. The siblings don’t feel any kindness or affection towards each other or each other’s spouses. There’s a certain gruding respect towards the mother, but she’s shown as a fatuous, narcissistic person. The narrator, one of the sons, has invited three strangers to the party. The others are not friendly to these interlopers.

A few days later, the narrator tells us and the other other family members who the unfamiliar guests were. This revelation is supposed to make the rest of the family look bad for not having been more welcoming. Apparently, the narrator feels that this gives him the entitlement to the high moral ground. But how so? He wasn’t being honest with everybody else, he was playing a trick on them, so why should we fault them and admire him?

Paul Theroux is a distinguished writer whose accomplishments should make us take a close look at anything he offers. But I’ve seldom read such a mean-spirited piece of writing as this.


The Fixer (Mystery/Thriller) by Joseph Finder, 2015

Rick Hoffman, a high-flying journalist based in Boston, suddenly finds himself out of a job and broke. He decides to fix up his old family home for sale. (His elderly father is incommunicado in a nursing home, as a result of a stroke twenty years earlier.) In the process of the house renovation, a stash of some three million dollars in cash is found hidden in a crawl space. Rick, not the least displeased to have this fortune at his disposal, secures it in a storage vault across town. When bad things start happening to him, though, he begins to have serious questions about the money. Clearly, somebody else feels they have a claim to it and will resort to any violence to get it. Rick’s attempt to solve the mystery about the money takes him back many years into the machinations of politics and corruption in Boston.

I’d never heard of this author until The New York Times published a strongly favourable review of this book. To me, however, it was merely ok as a mystery. It didn’t have any of the urgency or immediacy of the best works by thriller writers like Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Stephen King. Partly, I think, that was the result of writing that was too loose in The Fixer. Unnecessary sentences and paragraphs kept intruding; as a result, things didn’t move quickly enough.

Take this chapter opening, for instance:

By ten o’clock the next morning, Rick was at the offices of The Boston Globe, the time he knew Monica Kennedy usually got there. He stopped at security on the ground floor and called Monica’s desk. She told him to meet her at the top of the escalator.

He took the elevator up to the second floor, where the newsroom was located, and waited there for her. A sports reporter he knew from his time at the Globe gave him a wave and kept walking. Finally, Monica appeared, a brown folder in her left hand. She didn’t hand it to him. Instead, she said, "What do you want it for, Hoffman?"

I think the chapter opening would work better, simply with Monica appearing at the top of the escalator at the Globe, the folder in her hand, demanding: "What do you want it for, Hoffman?"

Another chapter opens with this follow-up to a scene wherein Rick had pretended to be writing a profile about a certain entrepreneur, Alex Pappas, as a way of trying to find out more about the man’s connections with Rick’s father:

Alex Pappas hadn’t been fooled by the interview ruse, not for a moment. He seemed to know why Rick was there even before he arrived at his office. He was the sort of man who prided himself on always being a step ahead. And he had been.

Rick had the uneasy feeling that Pappas had agreed to the faux interview because he wanted to meet Rick He wanted to sound Rick out, to find out what he could about what Rick knew and how he knew it.

To me, the first paragraph is unnecessary. We already knew that Mr. Pappas hadn’t been fooled by the interview ruse; he’d made that clear in the previous scene.

When you run into several more instances of redundant prose in The Fixer, you wonder whether it’s because of laziness. Is the author simply not vigilant enough to determine what’s necessary and what isn’t? Or is it an editing question? Are these the sorts of issues that better editing would have dealt with? Or – worse still – is this about padding a book in order to give it the volume that publishers think readers expect? Whatever the reason for it, this kind of prose has the effect of making a book seem slower and less gripping than it could be.

Not that this one is without merit. Some of the best passages are the ones where the suspects – the villains, if you like – are giving their take on the way the world works. Here, one guy is talking about how things get "fixed" behind the scenes:

Things fall apart, Rick. That’s the way of the world. I don’t care if it’s the White House or the Kremlin or the Vatican or the goddamned lyse Palace; nothing in this world happens without the guy behind the guy, the guy with the Rolodex, the guy who knows the secret password, the guy who gets the job done after the handshakes are over. Because the machinery’s always breaking down and the gears need to be oiled and nothing moves without the guy in the engine room.

In another passage, a corrupt tycoon who’s trying to buy Rick’s cooperation offers this stirring pep talk:

Small men are always waiting for their opportunity. Great men seize the opportunity. Great men say yes to life. They’re not naysayers. Every day you face the decision – do you say yes or do you say no? Do you seize the opportunity?....You know, there’s a saying in my business: Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize. So my question for you is, What knid of man are you? Do you want to be one of the big boys, the ones who build something great? Or the ones who want to pull things down?

And I liked Rick’s take on journalism, as a model for detective work:

When you were doing investigative journalism, you amassed as many documents, files, records as you could, to try to spot the tiny anomalies that might reveal something unexpected. Investigative journalism wasn’t like meeting Deep Throat in a parking garage. It was like mining for gold. You dug and dug, past the topsoil, down to the mineral layer, then you blasted the rock apart using explosives, then you trucked the rocks somewhere else to crush and process, and for every ton of rocks you went through, you’d get maybe five grams of gold. If you were lucky.

Among the book’s other good points, Rick shows a flash of mordant humour. A cop, standing by Rick’s hospital bed, asks if he’s afraid of somebody who has beat him up. Rick says: "Take a look at me....Wouldn’t you be?" And I like the fact that Rick pulls off a cagey sleuthing trick by means of his smart phone. In many other respects, though, the book disappoints.

  • Rick’s constantly getting the creepy feeling that he’s being followed. Such trite touches give almost a Hardy Boys quality to Rick’s amateur sleuthing. Unlike those pristine investigators, though, Rick gets whacked by unseen predators more times than any person could reasonably survive.
  • Twice, he stages a phony interview with a secret agenda of his own but both times the interviewee blows his cover. Once would have been enough.
  • The book is narrated, not in the first person, but in limited third person. We see everything from Rick’s point of view and we’re privy to his thoughts. When he’s just regaining consciousness in hospital after a beating, however, we get about four pages of medical lingo from the doctors attending to him. How could a guy in Rick’s mental condition grasp all this jargon? The lapse in versimilitude suddenly makes us aware not so much of Rick as a person but of Mr. Finder as a writer.
  • In that speech where the big time operator is talking about people who fix things, he says that St. Paul made "a few timely introductions to the Roman emperor Constantine, and next thing you know, a small-time first-century cult is a global religion." How could St. Paul have made any such introductions? Doesn’t the writer or the editor know that there’s a gap of a couple of centuries between St. Paul and Constantine? Or, is this gaff supposed to be a mark of the speaker’s stupidity? If so, Rick should have flagged it as such for the reader.

When a book with so many drawbacks earns a glowing tribute from The New York Times, you have to wonder: is this an indication of a steep decline in the standard of mystery/thriller writing? Or book reviewing?


Suspicion (Thriller) by Joseph Finder, 2014

The New York Times review that introduced me to the writing of Joseph Finder, specifically his 2015 novel, The Fixer (reviewed above), suggested that a reader unfamiliar with his work, should start with this earlier one. I can see why. It’s superb.

Our hero in Suspicion is Danny Goodman, a non-fiction writer. He has hit writer’s block in his latest book, his advance has been spent, and his publisher is threatening to cancel on him. Part of the problem with his writing is that he has been preoccupied with family trouble. Following the sudden death of his ex-wife, he has had sole responsibility for their teenage daughter, Abby. Danny’ is months behind on paying the fees for the fancy school she attends and the administration is on the point of kicking her out.

Along comes Thomas Galvin, the father of Jenna, another student at the school. Jenna considers Abby her best friend. Galvin, apparently wealthy beyond all imagining, offers to cover Abby’s school fees by means of a "loan" to Danny – a loan they both know can never be repaid. The reason for Galvin’s largesse? His daughter has been bounced from several schools and this friendship with Danny’s daughter is the most hopeful development in her life. Danny feels somewhat the same about the friendship of the two girls. What can he do but accept the money?

On the opening page, the author warns you that this is not going to turn out well but it’s not until about fifty pages in that the hook catches. To say any more than that about the plot would be to spoil some of the book’s surprises. And there are many of them.

One of the most intriguing things about Suspicion is that the presumed villain of the piece, i.e. Thomas Galvin, becomes more and more likeable. He seems genuinely kind towards Danny and Abby. Galvin is funny and self-deprecating about his wealth. He attributes it all to good luck. His life, he says, has been like that rare occasion when you’re driving through the city and you happen to hit green lights all the way. Danny can’t help being drawn into a genuine friendship with Galvin – which makes you all the more worried about how he’s going to extricate himself from the tangled web that’s being spun around him.

Except for one scene – medical torture being administered by a doctor – the book makes for compulsive reading. Is it likely, though, that we at Dilettante’s Diary would encounter a book (or play, or movie) that we couldn’t find anything to complain about? Hardly.

First, a few minor matters. At one point, Danny is regaining consciousness after an accident. He sees some first aid practitioners standing over him. Then: "A few others he didn’t recognize mulling around." I thing milling around is intended. On one page we get this description of a room: "The only furniture in here was a queen-size bed with a chenille bedspread, a couple of end tables, and a bureau." Twenty-two pages later, comes this description of another room: "The only furniture in the small room was a queen-size bed covered in a dark blue polyester-blend spread, two small unmatched end tables, and a bureau." I’m like: is this some kind of trick? is this supposed to be the same room? But no, the two rooms are in different locations. And there’s the difference in the bed spreads. You’d think that an editor would have caught the near duplication in the two descriptions.

One scene – but just one – doesn’t ring true for me. Through most of the story, Danny has been mum about the excruciating bind he’s in, but he’s finally forced to tell all to his girlfriend, who happens to be a psychiatrist. He apologizes for having been forced to lie to her because of the relentless pressure on him. Her bitter response is completely unreasonable, to my mind. To her, it’s all about Danny’s inability to "deal with confrontation." She doesn’t cut Danny the slightest bit of slack in consideration of the difficulties that have caused him to exercise almost superhuman strength of character. Why would a writer include a scene like this unless he just couldn’t resist playing up the role of a volatile female to give his book a little more spark?

The only other flaw with the book – alas! – is one that I’ve been complaining about almost since the inception of Dilettante’s Diary (twelve years ago). The world’s writers apparently haven’t been listening to my beef about the over-use of autonomic responses. I find them too easy a device for trying to indicate emotional turmoil. Writers belabour these clichs for lack of any more inventive way of telling us what a character is feeling. The occasional reference to autonomic responses would be fine; the problem is that some writers use them far too often. That’s not like real life as I experience it. If the writer keeps speaking of these things, you begin to feel that the characters implicated aren’t so much real people as puppets being controlled by a writer.

The story in Suspicion is so good that I was willing to overlook these blemishes at first. Starting to make note of them about half way through, I found twenty examples of things like Danny’s stomach flipping over, his heart hammering and "icy tendrils reaching inside, freezing and palpitating his guts." Granted, Danny’s under a lot of pressure. You or I, if confronted with the stuff that’s coming down on him, might also feel "icy tendrils reaching inside." But I tend to discount these sorts of details when writers use them so much. So why do they? Is the problem that I am not the typical thriller reader? Do most readers expect this sort of thing in this kind of book?

Oh yes, one other bugbear of mine: this fad for dividing a book into " Part One," "Part Two," etc, all the way up to "Part Five" in this case, each announcement of a new part taking up a page that’s otherwise blank. There’s no reason for the divisions; they don’t in any way correspond to significant changes in the tone, setting, or details of the story. Why do writers do this? Does it make them feel more important? Is it supposed to make book buyers feel that they’re getting a more substantial tome? It’s pretentious and a waste of paper -- an unfortunate blemish on a book that's so good.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com