Dilettante's Diary

Sept 21/17

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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: Between Them (Memoir); Arab Jazz (Mystery); Unearthed  (Memoir); The Broker (Thriller)

Between Them: Remembering My Parents (Memoir) by Richard Ford, 2017

Richard Ford is such an important writer – winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for instance – that, if he wants to talk about his parents, we should sit up and listen.

That’s not hard to do in the case of this engaging work. It’s one of those books that’s a pleasure even to hold. Not much bigger than your hand, it consists of just 175 elegant pages with clear, strong print on them and lots of white space. The contents consist of two essays, one mostly about Mr. Ford’s father and the other mostly about his mother (although there’s some overlap in subject matter). The one about his mother comes second, although it was written decades ago. The one about his father, the first one in the book, was written more recently.

One of the points that Mr. Ford seems most intent on making is that he always knew he didn’t come first for his parents and he’s fine with that. "When we went to his mother’s in Atkins, he [his dad] saw or stood near to my mother. He was her protector, but she was his. If it meant that I was further from the middle of things, I have lived my entire life thinking this is the proper way to be a family." His mom and dad had been married for several years before he turned up. Their son knows that the two of them had lots of fun on the road when his dad was travelling as a laundry starch salesman for the Faultless Company. There’s a sense that those were probably their best years. But they were ready for parenthood when it came. Their devotion to their son (an only child) was unstinting. They found a place to settle down and his mother stayed home to look after him, except for the few times when they tried a bit of family life on the road.

Although the essay on his dad was written more recently, it feels a little more distant, partly because his father died when Richard was just sixteen years old. Another reason for the slightly detached feeling about the material on the dad is that he was away so much, spending the weekdays at his job, driving around the southern states of the US. Richard knew him mostly as a weekend visitor. The dad comes across, you might say, as a presence by way of an absence. As Mr. Ford puts it: "....his continual absence, much more than his intermittent presences, has become (and perhaps was all along through childhood) much of who he was."

The senior Ford was patient and kind towards his son for the most part, but his bad temper did flare, sometimes at Richard, but more often when the technology of the 1960s daunted him. We get a long list of things he wasn’t good at, most of them having to do with his deficiencies as a handyman. Mr. Ford says that, the truest image that comes through the haze of recollections is that his dad was not a modern father. "Indeed, even then, when I knew him best, he seemed to be from another place and another time far away." One of the most fascinating things he says about his father is:

He was in most ways not a dexterous or skillful man, but in the art of being loved he possessed a talent – which surely is a virtue worth noting, one that confers benefits superior to most.

On the first quick reading of that sentence, I assumed the author was talking about his dad’s talent in the art of loving. But no, it’s "the art of being loved." Intriguing to think what it would mean to have a knack for that art!

Mr. Ford’s feelings for his mother are more intense, not least because she was the centre of his world for most of his upbringing:

I loved my mother the way a happy child does, thoughtlessly and without doubts. And when I became an adult, and we were adults who knew one another, we regarded each other highly. We could always say ‘I love you’ to clarify our complicated dealings without pausing. That seems perfect to me now and did then.

Later, he elaborates on what that love meant:

Does one ever have a "relationship" with one’s mother? I think not. We – my mother and I – were never bound together by much that was typical, not typical duty, regret, guilt, embarrassment, etiquette. Love, which is never typical, sheltered everything.

Mr. Ford’s mother, like his father, comes across as a sensible, down-to-earth person. It seems they didn’t read much, if at all; nor did they follow news. They weren’t fussed up about ideologies. They seemed focussed on the immediate realities surrounding them. In that spirit, after the dad’s death, Richard and his mother consciously reconfigured their rapport as a kind of partnership. She would give him a lot of freedom but she expected him to be responsible. His mother’s practical approach taught him this lesson: "....it’s what happens that matters, more than what people, even yourself, think about what happens before or after. It mostly only matters what we do."

To give Mr. Ford credit, he’s modest in this writing. He says almost nothing about his celebrity status as an American writer. Virtually the only reference to the subject is a wry note in passing. When he’d already published two novels and was teaching at Princeton, his mother asked him: "When are you going to get a job and get started?"

Granted, his parents are the subject of this book but there are times when you wish Mr. Ford would say a bit more about himself. He drops the comment that he was not good in school, perhaps because of undiagnosed learning disabilities. It’s so surprising to hear that about a distinguished writer that a reader longs for a bit more detail. As for being whipped by his father – more than once – he says only: "I do not now want to think too much about [it] because of its sudden-ness and ferocity." For this reader, that cries out for, not just more about its effect on young Richard, but also for his opinions as an adult on the place of such punishment in our civilization.

Much as I’ve enjoyed Mr. Ford’s novels, I found this memoir a little less accessible in some ways. Maybe it’s a question of having to catch the sound of his non-fictional voice. It’s heavy on analysis and reflection, with not much dialogue, incident or anecdote. Not much "reportage" as journalists would say. In just a couple of instances, the writer gets caught up in extended narrative. One of the incidents has to do with his panic when his mother didn’t come home from work one evening; the other has to do with the follow-up on his make-out session with a girlfriend who was convinced that she’d become pregnant.

One of the book's few novelistic touches, in an evocative way, comes in these thoughts about his dad’s life on the road:

And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight; taking a walk down a street in the evening, smoking? Eating supper with some man he knew off the road? Listening to the radio in the sweep and hum of an oscillating fan. Then turning in early to the noise of katydids and switch-yards, car doors closing and voices on the street laughing into another night.

Apart from a few passages like that, Mr. Ford’s prose in this book does not flow in an easy, conversational way. At times the sentences are so succinctly packed with thought that you have to ponder them to get their meaning. Sometimes, the meaning never does come through (for me). Is that because the thought can be a bit abstruse or nebulous? Take the following, from the author’s note that opens the book: "In all cases, however, entering the past is a precarious business, since the past strives but always half-fails to make us who we are." I think I get that, but a passage like the following one is harder to crack:

And yet it is also true that this period, between 1948 and 1960, encompasses the entire time – I can say it now – that I knew my father not just as a father or the father, but was the only time and the only terms under which I fully realized I had a father.

And this:

Our parents intimately link us, closeted as we are in our lives, to a thing we’re not, forging a joined separateness and a useful mystery, so that even together with them we are also alone.

Another passage – one where he’s chastising himself for not responding in a factual, realistic way to the probability of his mother’s death – also takes some careful reading:

You could say that in those days I had witnessed her facing death, saw it take her nearly out beyond her limits, feared it myself, feared all that I knew, and that I steadfastly clung to the possibility of her life. Or else you could say that I recognized something much more likely. I’ll never know for sure. But the truth is that anything we ever could’ve done for each other after that, passed by in those moments and was gone. Even together we were once again alone.

Maybe the following passage is a kind of apology for whatever difficulties the prose in this book may present to a reader:

Something, however, some essence of my and my mother’s life is not, I realize, coming clear through these words – as if there are not words and memory enough to give a life back and have it be right.

Okay, let’s admit it: words can’t always do it for you. However, a poignant thought – about a time when his mother was facing a cancer diagnosis – stands as a proof of the value of this memoir:

Something in the tests would change everything – again – and we wanted to act out our conviction that, yes, this has been a life, this adroit coming and going, this health, this humor, this affection expressed in fits and starts, even this occasional sadness. Nothing would change that. We could look back, and it would seen like we were alive enough through it all.

That could be the best that any of us can say about our lives and those of our loved ones.


Arab Jazz (Mystery) by Karim Misk, 2012. (English translation by Sam Gordon, 2015)

In the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a young flight attendant is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Her body has been sliced in what seems to be intended as a ritualistic message. An unemployed young Arab who has psychiatric issues is a prime suspect, mainly because the victim had given him the key to her apartment so that he could water her plants when her work kept her away from home. But detectives Rachel Kuperstein and Jean Hamelot find him strangely sympathetic. Their search for other suspects leads them into the lives of several denizens of the quartier: Jews, radical Islamists and hip-hop performers. The cops find themselves also digging into the culture of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, to make things even more complicated, there’s some mysterious new street drug having a powerful impact on the area.

This novel, apparently the first by Karim Misk, an accomplished maker of documentary films, is marketed as a mystery. There certainly is a lot of mystery lurking at the heart of it. But the book isn’t a conventional mystery. The search for the answers to the puzzles isn’t particularly taut or suspenseful. There’s a lot of digression into other issues. In some ways, it seems that the author can’t quite decide whether he’s writing a mystery or an ethnological study of social groups and their inter-relationships within a small community. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the book is to read it without expecting the kind of thrills that come from a mystery, taking it more as a study of certain kinds of people in a certain place at a certain time.

The book's strongest feature is the depiction of the three main characters: the two detectives and Ahmed Taroudant, the main suspect. In getting to know these people, we’re treated to a depth of insight that you don’t often get in a mystery. Both detectives, as it happens, were Ph. D. students, pursuing aspects of film studies, before they became cops. This means that they’re prone to thoughts and comments that you don’t get from the typical fictional detectives. Here, for instance, is the comment that Rachel makes when the two of them are pondering the odd effect of their first meeting with Ahmed:

"Up there in his apartment we shared a moment of grace. Something rare and fragile. A vibration. A thread so fine it’s practically invisible, the smallest breath enough to disturb it. The thread that will guide our investigation."

Imagine Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch saying something like that!

In long sections conveying their interior thoughts, we get intriguing glimpses into the souls of these characters. Reflecting on a mentor who had a sinister side, Rachel acknowledges:

His presence means she cannot forget that the police force is not just about Luke Skywalker, but about Darth Vader too. Deep down, a part of her – hard though it is to admit – reminds herself in a whisper that her very being is made up of this mixture of good and evil.

Her colleague Jean, after walking through an area where he felt a strong pull towards sex in massage parlours, has these thoughts:

For a long, long time, temptation has never been far from his mind.....it was puberty that spoiled everything. Why? His mother’s view of him must have altered, tightened ever so slightly. And it was within its limited scope that he continued to exist. Occasionally a quiet voice would whisper: "if you’re going to feel so shitty, being the typical male pig that you are, you might as well go the whole way and stop feeling guilty!"

Ahmed, the young Arab, has moments like this in his apartment:

He picks up on the muffled noises from all around the poorly soundproofed building. Most of the time, like tonight it’s the television. He can’t bear it when the news is on: violence piercing him through the walls, even if he can’t decipher the words. The rhythm, the frequency, the tone....All of it is aggressive, deceitful. Ads are too shouty. No, what he likes is the anesthetizing effect of the dubbed French versions of American series. He could never bear a television in his own place, but the dull sound of the programs through the cheap concrete...It’s like popping a Valium.

Later, we get Ahmed’s thoughts as he’s making coffee. Pouring the water onto the grounds in the filter reminds him of the way he uses the toilet for his excretions, whereupon we get a detailed description of that process. It’s not often that you get that sort of information about a character in a novel.

In spite of the vivid realization of these characters, I found the book, as a whole, difficult to get through. The plot ramifications are so widespread and complicated that there’s almost too much information to process. Some transitions are too abrupt. On an impulse, we’re taken to Brooklyn and introduced to a strange brother and sister who seem to have stepped in from another book. Back in Paris, there’s a lot of reference to Salafists, without much explanation of who they are. At one point we get a treatise on how the Jews in Egypt were treated at the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967: interesting history but it doesn’t have much to do with the story in this book. The same could be said for Ahmed’s reverie about his ancestors; it adds colour to his character but doesn’t help the novel’s forward momentum. The book’s scope stretches even to include some information about the missionary efforts of a Jehovah Witness towards the Inuit. And then there’s a discussion about female circumcision – another crucial subject in sociological terms, but one that’s extraneous to the proceedings in this book.

And there are some of what I would consider flaws in the narrative style. Too much laborious telling of back story as, for instance, in the page given over to the explanation of Ahmed’s relationship with a cousin who doesn’t have much to do with the main plot. Occasionally, there are unnecessary sentences. In a tense scene, we’re told that "Ahmed is feeling increasingly uncomfortable" and that "He’s never felt so bad in all his life." We don’t need those statements; we’ve already been told that Ahmed was "beginning to find the situation singularly unpleasant" and that beads of anxious sweat were forming at his armpits and on the nape of his neck.

One minor detail of the book I found rather puzzling, and this may be simply a matter of the translator’s choice. The characters in Paris are said to be using dollars in their ordinary, day-to-day financial transactions. That strikes a false note. Did the translator not think that we English-speaking readers would be okay with the concept of Euros?

Strange to say, for a book that seems to rely so heavily on a sense of place, I never felt the ambiance of the 19th arrondissement strongly. Maybe the writer was expecting that his French readers would know the scene. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that, three years after its publication, the book would be translated into English – and thus made available to us who don’t know Paris so well.


Unearthed (Memoir) by Alexandra Risen, 2016

This is one of those books that you pick off the shelf, not knowing anything about it, and skim through the first couple of pages. What they offered, in this case, was a young woman sitting at her father’s deathbed. He’s in a coma, but a nurse assures her that he will hear if she speaks to him. So the woman starts trying to offer some kind of farewell, while skating around her resentment over a difficult childhood with this man. When she’s said what she has to say, a tear trickles out of the man’s eye and rolls down his cheek. Then another tear.

That was enough to make me bring the book home. What this true story turned out to be is a collection of reminiscences from the woman's difficult childhood sprinkled throughout her account of transforming of a neglected garden.

When Alexandra Risen and her husband bought a non-descript ranch-style house down a long driveway in Toronto, they didn’t realize that the property, backing on a ravine, included an acre of what had once been a splendid garden but was now an over-grown mess. The book tells how they gradually restored the garden to its former glory in a process that took about ten years. Details of the author’s family life back in Edmonton, often prompted by memories of her mother’s love of gardening, are deftly woven into the narrative.

At first, it was the story of that weird childhood that interested me most. Ms. Risen’s parents were immigrants from the Ukraine whose marriage seems to have been a rash mistake made in the exhilarating freedom from the constraints endured during the Second World War. From the child’s point of view, there was no evidence of any love or compatibility throughout their years as parents. They seemed to have only one way of communicating with each other: quarrelling. The father was the strangest of the two. As Ms. Risen remembers it, he hardly ever spoke to her. When she was leaving home for university, he offered her the gift of a tool box that he’d made and that occasion was the first time that she remembers his making eye contact with her.

The question what on earth’s wrong with these people? kept me reading.

Alexandra’s mother, although not overflowing with affection, was more approachable than the dad. But she, too, was truculent and taciturn. Alexandra once found a small bag of dirt hidden among her parents’ belongings. In response to the child’s question about it, the mother said it was dirt from her mother’s grave. End of subject. No discussion whatsoever. Alexandra still knew virtually nothing about her grandparents. But the mother did have a feisty, independent streak to her. She enjoyed learning to drive in her sixties and revelled in the freedom that gave her. Alexandra once discovered that her mother had a fur coat stashed away. Her mother explained that, when she was pregnant with Alexandra, her husband had promised to buy his wife a fur coat if the baby turned out to be a boy. But the baby was Alexandra, so there was no fur coat forthcoming from the father. Alexandra’s mother bought one for herself.

It would seem that virtually the only affection or comfort that Alexandra enjoyed as a child came in the company of her older sister, Sonia. At times of domestic strife, they’d curl up in bed together and console each other. However, Sonia’s being several years older meant that she inevitably branched out into her own life, leaving Alexandra to grapple with her bewildering parents alone for the most part.

Eventually, through family documents and historical research, Ms. Risen comes to appreciate some of the horrors her parents must have lived through during the war and after. If that doesn’t bathe her childhood recollections in sweetness and light, it does help her to understand her parents better. Her project with the garden in Toronto is, in fact, something of a tribute to her mother who instilled a love of gardens in her. Throughout the book, there’s a race to get the Toronto garden completed so that her mother can see it before her health declines too precipitously. That gives the gardening portions of the book a certain urgency and suspense.

However, the gardening didn’t sustain my interest right to the end. Throughout the ten-year process, there are so many stages, so many decisions, negotiations and problems that it all begins to blur. When, for instance, an arborist harnesses himself in his gear and climbs up into a tree that needs pruning (about two thirds of the way through the book), I found myself wondering: how interesting is that? Not terribly, at least not for urban dwellers who see so much of that sort of thing. Part of the problem is that so many workers come and go that it’s impossible to care much about most of them. My awareness of that issue was sparked by a situation that had a contrary effect. Near the end of the book, an Italian and his son come to do various works of restoration. They hang on for quite a while. Ms. Risen makes a point of serving them cappuccinos and amaretti (almond cookies) and her friendship with the men makes a delightful interlude in the story. That showed me what was missing in other parts of it.

Still, it’s fun to think of discovering the hidden treasures of a garden the way Ms. Risen and her family did. Takes a person back to those enchanting childhood stories of secret gardens. But one thing bothered me throughout this narrative. It was taking months, even years, for the family to unearth everything about the garden: that it had electricity installed, that there was a pagoda at the bottom of the ravine, that there were three connecting ponds, benches, a gate, a bridge and so on. Why was it taking so long to find all this? The garden is only an acre in size, for heaven’s sake. Maybe the discoveries are spaced out for the sake of making a better narrative. For me, the tactic creates a slightly implausible note.

Although Ms. Risen’s writing is, for the most part, lucid and graceful, one thing about her style bothers me. It's the frequent recourse to autonomic responses as a way of indicating emotion. Within about fifty pages, we get a heart racing, bile rising, pain shooting through a neck, hands tingling, a wave of panic, hands tense, a head spinning, a body stiffening, a lump in the throat, blood rushing from a face, dread surging and a pulse pounding. I don’t think this is the way most humans experience life. (A writer who does needs to get up from the computer and see a doctor.) To me, it’s just a literary clich that writers fall back on all too easily and frequently. You can see why a writer might be tempted to take that route. You’d think, though, than an editor would advise otherwise.


The Broker (Thriller) by John Grisham, 2005

Although John Grisham may not be considered one of the brightest lights of the current literary world, I found his Rogue Lawyer pleasing enough to make me want to try another of his books. But the library didn’t have anything else available. (Bright light or not, I guess he’s in great demand.) In a stroke of good luck, then, I spotted this book in one of those little neighbourhood lending libraries that people set up in cute boxes on their front lawns.

The Broker stars Joel Backman, a Washington lawyer who was famous for his behind-the-scenes scheming to bring about various deals among the nation’s rich and powerful. But he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison when the news of one of his attempted negotiations broke open in an atmosphere of scandal and chicanery. (It involved trying to find a buyer for a device that could screw up everybody else’s satellite spying technology.) At the opening of the book, however, when he’s about half way through the sentence, he’s granted a pardon by the outgoing US President. The terms of the arrangement are that he must consent to being taken to Europe where he’s forced to adopt a new life and a new identity. It’s the CIA that has twisted the President’s arm to get this pardon. That’s because the CIA wants to see which country rushes to kill Backman now that he’s an available target. That, as the theory goes, will tell the CIA who had the biggest stake in the deal that sent the guy to prison. (Or, at least, I think that’s what the CIA initiative was all about.)

I liked reading about Backman’s attempt to establish a new life for himself in Italy, meanwhile scheming deviously to try to establish contact with his old life. Some of the clever stratagems he has to adopt for his own benefit are entertaining. Much of the book, however, amounts to not much more than sheer travelogue, as he wanders through Bologna, marvelling at its architecture and ambiance. And the dialogue with his guides on these peregrinations can be extremely banal. We get boring speeches about history, followed by comments like "It’s still very impressive" and "Just beautiful." Because he’s being forced to learn Italian, we’re constantly given little phrases in that language, complete with English translations. (Is this book supposed to give us the gratifying feeling that we’re learning something?) Some corny touches bring to mind the Harlequin genre: a case of a woman’s sprained ankle, for instance, followed by her fainting.

In contrast to that anodyne content, there is the sense of pervasive evil and malice that seem to be constitutive elements of Mr. Grisham’s view of the world. Some horrendous violence is coolly described, as though it is an inevitable fact of life. The CIA and the FBI, it is assumed, are at war with each other. Of course, Mr. Grisham knows a thing or two about suspense and he does build up a tremendous sense of it about three quarters of the way through the book. Strangely, though, the book slides downhill from that point to a relatively slack ending. You get the impression of an author coasting on his reputation, somewhat. He has whipped up an extremely complicated story but has peopled it with characters who come and go in a disposable way that doesn’t satisfy a reader. Maybe it would work better as a movie. I’m guessing that that’s a thought that has probably occurred to Mr. Grisham.



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