Dilettante's Diary

Apr 22/19

Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
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Highs 'N Lows of 2014
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
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March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
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Feb 7/13
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A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
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Fall Reading 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
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Art Toronto 2011
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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Fall Reading 2010
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TOAE 2010
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
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Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
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Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
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July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
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Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
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Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
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Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
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Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
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Feb 1/06
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Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
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Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
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: Capernaum (Movie); The Parade (Novella); La Fille du Rgiment (Opera); Past Tense (Mystery); The Feral Detective (Mystery); Hiking With Nietzsche (Memoir); Pops (Essays); Heavy (Memoir); La Finta Giardiniera (Opera); Oslo (Play); American Philosophy: A Love Story (Memoir)

Capernaum (Movie) written by Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Georges Khabbas and Khaled Mouzanar; directed by Nadine Labaki; starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Fadi Yousef, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam, Alaa Couchnieh, Elias Khoury.

The title, we’re told, means "chaos" in Arabic. And how! Not just in the main character’s life, but in the setting and the surroundings. It’s Beirut and we see nothing but crowded laneways, crooked alleys, decrepit buildings. Aerial views make the city look like a bunch of puzzle pieces randomly thrown together.

Wending his way through this mess, is Zain, a youngster who has left his family and is trying to survive on his own. He’s said to be approximately twelve years old – nobody knows his exact birth date – but Zain Al Rafeea, in the role, looks at least a couple of years younger. He hardly ever smiles, which makes it all the more striking when he does. With thick, dark hair, soulful eyes and pouting lips, he has the look of a mischievous angel but try to take advantage of this kid and a barrage of obscenity from him will knock you flat.

Zain has a good heart, though. In fact, the reason for his rejecting his family is that he figures they’re going to try to give his eleven-year-old sister ( Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) as a bride to a guy who owns a convenience store nearby. When she had her first menstrual period, Zain tried to help her to hide it. He washed her underpants for her, then gave her his t-shirt to stuff in her pants. All this because of his fear of what they were going to do when they found out about this change in her.

For this kind of story, the word ‘picaresque’ comes to mind: the episodic adventures of a hero who’s not particularly noble. Somehow, though, that term hints at a certain amount of humour, but that’s one thing you don’t find much of in Zain’s saga. Part of it (about an hour’s worth of screen time) has him living with an illegal Ethiopian immigrant (Yordanos Shiferaw). She has taken him in so that he can look after her one-year-old boy while she goes to work. Zain’s involvement with the baby is remarkable for a lack of sentiment or cloying cuteness. He simply deals with the baby – often in frustrating circumstances – in as practical and sensible a way as he can. At one point, he fixes a mirror in the window of the shack where they live so that he and the baby can watch cartoons on the tv of their shanty-town neighbour.

In keeping with the spirit of the movie’s title, though, none of Zain’s exploits is clearly explained or narrated in a coherent way. Most of the time, we’re just getting fragments of events and encounters; every scene feels like it has been cut off a couple of seconds too soon. To add to the confusion, there are repeated flashbacks to a courtroom and what appear to be three separate trials. In one of them, ostensibly, Zain is suing his parents. Why? Because, he says, he didn’t want to be born. Another trial (all of them before the same judge, played by Elias Khoury), is about Zain’s having stabbed somebody. In the third trial, it appears that he has caused some harm to the baby of the Ethiopian woman.

Flashing to these trials every now and then is a clever narrative device in that it builds suspense.You feel that the stakes are large, that this isn’t just about one kid’s wanderings. But I have to wonder: would the movie be as interesting or as gripping if Zain’s story were told in a more straight-forward way, progressing chronologically as life does, without all this jumping around in time? Probably not. Can we accept, then, that it’s okay for a work of art to jumble things this way in order to make the story more exciting? Or is it just a lot of hocus-pocus?

For some of us, the viewing was made more difficult by the use of a hand-held camera in sequences involving a lot of action and violence. This can produce major stomach unease for a viewer. Sometimes, in these situations, I can look away from the screen, relying on the dialogue to tell me what’s going on. In this case, though, I needed to read the subtitles, not being fluent in Arabic.

Another problem with the viewing – for me – was the length of the movie. Two hours was too much. By way of making it a little more bearable, we could have done with less of Zain’s mucking about with the baby boy. But the movie does have its powerful moments. The strongest speech in the movie comes from Zain’s father (Fadi Yousef) in the courtroom. Not a particularly admirable man, he lets fly with a tirade to the effect that he never should have married, he never should have had kids, he had hoped to be a good, honourable person, but everything went bad for him and now he’s this despicable person that everybody wants to spit on.

Makes you think, that.


The Parade (Novella) by Dave Eggers, 2019

We start in a mood that seems like a John Le Carr or Graham Greene adventure. Two guys have been assigned to a mission in an unnamed Third World country that has just come through a prolonged civil war. For security reasons, the two men don’t have passports and don’t know each other’s names. They refer to each other as "Four" and "Nine."

The story is being told from the point of view of "Four" who is the more experienced of the two men; "Nine" is a new-comer to this kind of work. Their assignment is to pave a two-lane road leading from the capital 230 kilometers through bush and forest into the hinterlands. Timing is crucial because the President of the country intends to stage a victory parade on the completed road in about ten days. The road bed has already been levelled and prepared; to accomplish the paving all it takes is one huge machine which picks up pods of asphalt at designated points, ingests them, then spits out perfect pavement as it rolls on. The machine can do about 25 kms a day, 30 if pushed. "Four" will drive the machine; "Nine" will drive ahead on an all-terrain vehicle to clear obstacles and people from the path of the machine.

The drama of the story is the contrast between the characters of "Four" and "Nine." The former is mature, controlled, organized, disciplined and responsible, somewhat anally-retentive, you might say. The latter is easy-going and fun-loving, spontaneous and uninhibited. The company they work for insists that the men should never engage with local people to any extent other than when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it is feared, people will interfere with the work by pleading to be taken on for pay or some such intrusion. "Four" obeys this rule scrupulously but "Nine" can’t resist engaging with everybody he encounters. The resulting commotion creates great consternation for "Four" who finds himself unable to subdue "Nine’s" exuberance. "Four" would like to call headquarters and have "Nine" fired but hesitates to do so because his inability to control "Nine" would reflect badly on himself.

It’s hard to know what to make of this novella (just 179 small pages). It’s not like any other novel that I can think of. There’s something more detached and factual about it. Given Dave Eggers’ reputation for high-minded concern about social issues, I kept looking for some message about justice and fairness in the Third World. One thing that the novel does seem to want to point out is that you can’t keep yourself aloof from the indigenous people around you in such a situation. Inevitably, "Four" finds, he has to keep turning to helpful locals along the way. But the message is mixed. Maybe the two men would have been fine without local help if only "Nine" hadn’t kept breaking out. And the results of the interaction with the locals aren’t unambiguously or necessarily beneficial by any means. For the reader, the ending of the story is a classic case of having the rug pulled out from under you.

I’m not sure what it is about this book that makes it seem somewhat less than a real novel (not a question of its length). It’s not that there’s a lack of characterization. Both "Four" and "Nine" come off the page as distinctive people. Perhaps the problem with the book is that it’s so linear. The one problem – "Nine’s" antic disposition – dogs "Four" all the way to the end of the book, with no side-tracks. You don’t get the warp and woof of life, so to speak: the multiple encounters and activities that make up a person’s day. Most novels are about relationships, i.e. how people negotiate the interactions with each other. In this book, there’s precious little of any such negotiation. "Nine" is in absentia for much of the book. The few scenes that the two men have together are lively, but that’s mostly because of "Nine’s" contributions; "Four" is so pissed off most of the time that he says hardly anything.

Strange as the book is, and unsatisfying in some ways, I did read to the end (about a two-and-a-half-hour project). Mr. Eggers starts with a note of intrigue and suspense that keeps you wanting to find out what’s happening even if you’re not enjoying the story all that much and even if you can’t ultimately figure out what he wants to say.


La Fille du Rgiment (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean Franois de Bayard; conducted by Enrique Mazzola; production by Laurent Pelly; starring Pretty Yende, Stephanie Blythe, Javier Camarena, Maurizio Muraro and Kathleen Turner. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Met Opera HD Live Broadcast (Encore), April 6, 2019

This opera is all about the big aria for the tenor – "Ah, mes amis!"with its nine high C’s. I’d been so impressed with Juan Diego Florez’s singing of it in the Met broadcast of an earlier production, that I wasn’t interested in what I assumed could only be an inferior performance. In the meantime, though, I was beginning to hear good things about Javier Camarena and a look at his work on the Internet suggested that it might be worthwhile to give a listen to his assay on this role. So I signed up for the encore presentation of this broadcast.

To put it plainly – Signor Camarena was dazzling, wonderful, spectacular. He doesn’t have that thrilling vibrato that Signor Florez has, but his voice may be a bit sweeter, somewhat more like Jussi Bjrling’s. As for his high notes, he tosses them off with perfect confidence and elan. His physique isn’t exactly what you’d want in a romantic lead: not very tall and somewhat stocky. But there’s a fresh boyishness about his face and an exuberance in his manner that makes him quite acceptable in the role. To watch him standing and soaking up the pandemonium in the audience after his first performance of the big aria, then launching into an encore of it, which brought on more tumult in the house, was one of the most exciting moments of any show I’ve seen.

It turns out, though, that the ovation may not have been quite as spontaneous as it seemed. In the intermission interview, we found out that Mr. Camarena had encored the piece at every performance so far in the run, so maybe the vociferous outburst from the audience members was their way of demanding the hoped-for encore. Which turns the Met into something more like the circus ring than the opera house. Still, it was thrilling.

Pretty Yende sang the role of Marie beautifully but you have to forget about somebody like Joan Sutherland in this kind of music. Nobody can reproduce that floating, effortless quality of her coloratura style. Ms. Yende captured perfectly the butch qualities of a young woman who has been raised in a regiment of soldiers; it was particularly interesting during the intermission interview to find that some of the muttering that she was doing when angry was based on her native Zulu language. I did think, though, that in the second act where her character is supposed to be trying to acquire a more lady-like deportment (sort of a Liza Doolittle transformation), her acting was too broad, too clumsy.

But maybe that wasn’t inconsistent in a production that emphasized buffoonery, with touches like elaborate choreography that turned the performers into marionettes. The story itself is complete nonsense. It’s not often these days that you see a show with such laborious exposition followed up with the predictable complications. That could be why certain anomalies in this production have persisted. I’m still puzzled by the sight of Marie, in a setting around the time of the First World War, ironing underwear with an iron that looks like she just ordered it on eBay. Maybe the point is that such details don’t matter. That could also be why the notary is dressed in a modern business suit in contrast to the period costumes of all the other characters. And who cares if the renowned Kathleen Turner, making her Met debut in the non-singing role of the Duchess of Crakentorp, hams it up mercilessly as she pours on the surly humour?

You could say that conductor Enrique Mazzola set the tone. Conducting the overture rambunctiously, his eyes sending electric beams through his red-framed glasses, he looked like he was having so much fun that he was going to jump out of the pit with sheer exhilaration.


Past Tense (Mystery) by Lee Child, 2018

What a pleasure to find that Lee Child can still turn out a Jack Reacher mystery that’s as fresh and intriguing as the best of them! It strikes me that Mr. Child, as author, must have some of the same qualities of courage, confidence and daring as the fictional hero he has created.When faced with the challenge of coming up with another Reacher adventure, Mr. Child tells himself: Can we do this? Yes, we can! And he steps up to the word processor boldly.

The results of his work this time have Jack Reacher moored in a small town in New Hampshire where he’s indulging in a bit of uncharacteristic nostalgia. His father came from around these parts and Reacher wants to see if he can find any trace of the old man; maybe clear up some questions of family history.

Meanwhile, a young man and woman from New Brunswick who are driving to New York have become stranded at an isolated motel when their old car has broken down. They begin to suspect that something weird is going on; so do we readers. This young pair is definitely in for some major trouble.

It takes a long time for Reacher’s ancestral search to cross paths with the dilemma of the young couple but we know that will happen eventually. Somehow, though, Mr. Child manages to make Reacher’s quest absorbing for the reader. That’s partly because, along the way, Reacher becomes involved in a fracas or two that he has to settle with his brawn. As usual, Mr. Child makes Reacher’s might and muscle just barely believable. (It helps when a stranger, on first seeing Reacher, thinks of him as a giant.) We get the usual glimpses of Reacher’s laconic humour. When a police chief asks if he’s trying to cause trouble, Reacher responds: "Generally speaking, I think trouble is best avoided. You could almost call it a rule." Somebody warns Reacher not to let ego get in the way of a good decision and he quips: "You just trashed every general in our nation’s history." It’s hard to say whether the fact that there’s no sex for Reacher in this episode is a function of his advancing age but it’s nice to see him playing a sort of paternal role in encouraging the romance of a younger couple.

We’re also reminded of Reacher’s motto: "Hope for the best, plan for the worst." That’s consistent with one of his most outstanding characteristics: his ability to figure out what’s going to happen seconds before it does, his skill at calculating angles, forces, probabilities and so on, which accounts, to a large extent, for his prowess in physical combat. Significantly, though, Mr. Child has given two other characters a similar talent, not so much in terms of physics, but in terms of psychology. We get a couple of instances where characters go through some very complicated calculations about what’s happening in a mere flash. I don’t know if humans really are capable of such rapid ratiocination, but it makes for exciting reading.

The young couple become more likeable and you care more about them as the story evolves. I don’t think that’s just because of their country of origin. (Several references are made to their innate politeness as Canadians.) He is a potato farmer and she works in a sawmill. The girl is smarter than the boy in many respects but he has a canny knowledge of certain more practical matters. I particularly like it when Mr. Child says this about them holding hands during one of their scariest moments: "the palm to palm contact was better than talking." You find yourself really plugging for these two in their gastly circumstances.


The Feral Detective (Mystery) by Jonathan Lethem, 2018

If I’d known where this book was heading, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I can’t remember reading any of Jonathan Lethem’s other books, but his name is familiar. A recent New Yorker piece of short fiction from him was a poignant story about a man’s regret at the way his sister was treated by his buddy. This novel, however, goes far beyond the ambiance of ordinary life that permeated that story.

On first impressions, though, the novel charmed me, mainly because of a fascinating relationship between two people. One of them, Phoebe Siegler, the narrator, has come to California to try to find the teenage daughter of a good friend. The daughter seems to have disappeared into some kind of cult-like commune. The man that the narrator becomes involved with, Charles Heist, is a freelance detective who specializes in helping find kids who have vanished.

Phoebe is a fast-talking, hip young woman who has worked in the media on the east coast of the US. Charles Heist, she finds, is a taciturn, brooding, strongly masculine type, a sort of Marlboro Man. Gradually, it becomes obvious that she finds him sexually magnetic. What stops their relationship from becoming a mere Harlequin scenario is that Phoebe has a shrewd eye on her own feelings and reactions. Knowing her own character well, she’s able to put a humorous spin on her attitude to this he-man. At one point, she tells us that she addresses some words to him "with a sincerity distinguishing them from my ordinary whimsicality and sarcasm, at no small cost." Later, when the man is in one of his less talkative moods, she notes: "Me being me, his abiding silence only unloosened further verbal incontinence." In her search for the missing teenager, she refers a couple of times, in a self-deprecating way, to her "Nancy Drew" tendencies. Meanwhile, she’s stewing about the fact that Barack Obama is no longer the President and she can barely force herself to acknowledge that someone else is now occupying the White House.

Much as she is smitten by the detective, she’s capable of describing him in ways that show she knows she’s being a bit ridiculous. She sees him as "the faintly wounded and yet un-self-pitying character" and "the deliberate and patient and other-directed and sometimes utterly infuriating depressive..." She gets really annoyed when she asks him if they’re on the same planet and he says, in his plain-spoken, factual way, that there is only one planet. Her response:

"Thank you, Mr. Spock. You know, I figured you out now. You may look like a wolverine, but you’re the opposite. You’re one of those Leonard Nimoy types, a total Asperger’s robot. Human beings are just puzzling animals to you, worth saving for the sport of it, no better than stray dogs. There’s only one planet, sure – but you’re studying it from the wrong end of the telescope."

In his work, but even more in his troubled personality, Charles reminded me somewhat of Joaquin Phoenix’s role in You Were Never Here. However, Charles is never quite as ominous as the character in that movie. Still, Phoebe’s involvement with Charles in the search for the missing girl takes the reader into some very strange territory and it’s linked to Charles’ mysterious past. Weird things are going on among those dwellers in the deserts of California. That’s the part of the book that I’d have avoided if I’d known what was coming. Things became so bizarre that I began to wonder if we were supposed to see the events as a kind of allegory. It was hard to believe that real human beings were carrying on the way these creatures were. But the tale comes back to the real world with a believable, non-triumphant ending.

The book is divided – unnecessarily – into seven "Parts." Ordinarily, that makes me complain about the waste of paper required for printing the title of each part on an otherwise empty page. In this case, though, several of the chapters within the parts consist of no more than one or two sentences surrounded by white space and I’m not going to complain about that because the tactic is effective in literary terms.

One thing about the book still puzzles me. How, in this day, when the question of appropriation of voice is so prominent, does Mr. Lethem get away with adopting the voice of a young woman? His doing so seems especially iffy, given that he is describing the woman’s erotic responses to a man. Is a male writer allowed nowadays to put himself in a woman’s mind that way? For me, he does it utterly convincingly but I’m wondering if there are other readers who wouldn’t approve.


Pops (Essays) by Michael Chabon, 2018

I was resistant to this little book – just 127 small pages – when I first heard of it. Admittedly, Michael Chabon is a distinguished American novelist, but who wants to hear his pontificating on the marvels of being a father? I found, though, that there’s no pontificating or generalizing in this. He just deals with certain specific instances of his own experience of fathering (including the kind he got from his father). They’re all interesting in a particular way, without trespassing on anybody else’s cherished notions of fatherhood.

For me, the most striking point in the book was in the introduction, where Mr. Chabon takes us back to the time when his first book was about to be published. An established author warned him that a writer can’t have children because they’ll inevitably cause him to produce fewer books. Mr. Chabon’s point: who cares if I produce fewer books? With a view to cosmology, he describes the inevitable annihilation of himself and his loved ones and the fact that almost all the books we know will be consigned to oblivion: "If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them."

The essay I like best is the one about his 13-year-old son, Abe, who is a fashionista. He’s so in love with clothes that he gets special attention from the movers and shakers at the Paris fashion week. This kid sticks with his own idiosyncratic sense of style regardless of the ribbing he gets from his less imaginative peers. You can see how admirable a kid is who dares to be truly different.

In an essay centering on his daughter, Mr. Chabon talks about how he and she realize that their life in California is taking place in a kind of "bubble" of individualism and left-wing freedom, as compared to the more circumscribed, conventional lives of the people who are so nice to him in his travels around the country. One essay ponders the predicament of how to deal with objectionable words when you’re reading aloud to your kids. In an essay about baseball, Mr. Chabon explores the paradox of his own obsession with the game and his need to dissuade his son from playing it. In the final essay he talks about tagging along with his dad on house calls, and pretending to be a doctor like his dad, even though he didn’t want to be a doctor.

Only one essay gave me qualms about the author’s parenting. The essay is about his son’s shunning of a girl who was playing up to him on social media. When the girl falls into an unfortunate state some years later, Mr. Chabon suggests to his son that maybe his avoiding her had something to do with her ending up so badly. I found that guilt trip a bit much to lay on the kid!


Hiking with Nietzsche (Memoir) by John Kaag, 2018

The author, a forty-ish philosophy prof at a US college, visits the sites of some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous walks in the Alps. This is a reprise of a trek through the same territory that Mr. Kaag had taken as a graduate student, about age 19, when he almost starved himself to death. He was apparently searching for some meaning to life then and he is re-visiting the issue now. (He has his wife and his three-year-old daughter with him.)

Mr. Kaag ponders the various works of Nietzsche as he walks along. You would probably get a lot more out of this book if you were more familiar than I am with the works of Nietzsche. The direct quotes from Nietzsche are enigmatic and cryptic. Sometimes the syntax or word usage seems odd. (A translation problem?) In general, I picked up the sense that Nietzsche saw life as a pile of shit, it’s all about suffering and pain, there is no sense to anything, rationality fails in the end, you have to embrace that and then you somehow rise above it and become an "bermensch." That’s a guy who’s always striving, beating his head against a wall.

One of Nietzsche’s most interesting ideas did come through: his sense of the victim morality. The ruling people see beauty and strength and power as the meaning of life; the slaves, feeling victimized, therefore turn to the opposite values: humility, lowliness, meekness, self-abnegation. But anybody in a less deprived state can see that power is the genuine human value. He says this victim morality is a Jewish tradition running through our ethics. You can see how Nietzsche appealed to the Nazis. The relationship between Nietzsche and Richard Wagner is interesting: Nietzsche as devoted protegee at first, then as hostile former devotee.

Mr. Kaag mentions another philosopher who lived in the same hotel that he and his wife are staying in: Theodor Adorno. I was impressed by Adorno’s teaching that we are very much products of our culture, of the consumerism and the materialism surrounding us; we think we develop independent personalities with our own thoughts but we don’t.

In the end, the book didn’t really click with me, because I could never quite bond with Mr. Kaag as its first-person narrator. Part of the problem could be that he is a philosopher, not a novelist or a story-teller. That could be why I never felt that I knew him very well. Maybe he doesn’t have the novelist’s skill at conveying character – his own, in this case. And the "story," such as it is in this book, gets lost in the philosophizing. It was hard for me to see what his problem was. Why all this angst? Why all this analysis? You couldn’t help feeling that he’s too intellectual, that he makes too much of everything. You wanted to tell him: Just get on with life!

The subtitle of the book is "On Becoming Who You Are." The book ends with the discovery that all life is about becoming, about constantly changing. He quotes Nietzsche: "To become what one is, one must not have the faintest idea of what one is." And he sums up: "Nietzsche’s point may be that the process of self-discovery requires an undoing of the self-knowledge that you assume you already have. Becoming is the ongoing process of losing and finding yourself."

But how does this apply to Mr. Kaag? Not sure that the book tells us.


American Philsophy: A Love Story (Memoir) by John Kaag, 2016

John Kaag’s Hiking With Nietzsche (reviewed above) didn’t please me as much as I’d hoped. I wondered if it was published because his earlier book, American Philosophy: A Love Story had been greeted with loud kudos and several awards. In it, Mr. Kaag tells about discovering a marvellous library on a rural estate in New Hampshire. The library and the property belonged to the noted Harvard Philosopher, William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966). In the library, Professor Hocking collected first editions of many of the most important philosophical books of the last couple of centuries. The library also contains his letters from the likes of William James, Robert Frost and many other luminaries. When Mr. Kaag comes along, Hocking’s three granddaughters are watching over the place but nobody else is paying much attention to it.

Mr. Kaag presents himself as a somewhat disenchanted young philosophy professor who is having trouble finding meaning in his own life. He discovers new purpose in sorting and cataloguing the library, a task that Professor Hocking’s granddaughters gladly encourage. The hope is that some home can be found for the books where they’ll be better preserved than in this musty rural hideaway.

I wanted to like this book very much. I savoured the idea of the young man finding himself through his private communion with these great thinkers. The setting is enchanting. Occasionally, Mr. Kaag falls into a bit of narrative about an incident that can be quite engaging: skinny dipping in the pond on the property or helping one of the granddaughters with the scything.

However, I found it difficult to follow the survey of the philosophers. In Mr. Kaag’s attempt to explain connections in the intellectual world he has encountered, some pages are littered with names that a casual reader simply can’t keep track of. Some of the names that did loom large meant something to me: Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Henry David Thoreau and William James. But who, I wondered, would have lavished so much praise on this book? Perhaps academics who were more familiar with the material than I am.

Towards the end of the book, I did like it more, because Mr. Kaag settled into ruminations about a few major thinkers, without piling on so many new ones. The book ends on the note that philosophy should have an impact on life, it should say something about the quality of our lives; it shouldn’t be just esoteric brain spinning. Hard to argue with that.

One of the recurring motifs in the book is Mr. Kaag’s marital status. Early on, he seems to be trying to establish the fact that his ten-year-old marriage was a disaster and that his perusal of these books of philosophy helped him to end the marriage by way of expressing his own freedom and authenticity. The assumption seems to be that we readers will applaud his bravery. In such situations, however, I always wonder about the other side of the story. Without wanting to be judgemental about it, I can’t help asking: does the partner who is left behind see this breakup as a gesture of freedom and authenticity? After all, there was a time when this marriage did not seem to be a mistake to either of the parties involved. In this respect, then, it was a bit hard for me to get on board with Mr. Kaag.

Eventually, he does begin to love another woman – a colleague in philosophy who comes to help him with the sorting of these books – and to form what apears to be a truly loving marriage with her. In the process of sorting the library’s collection with her, he happens upon some women’s writings that stir up feminist thoughts in him. That prompts him to wonder whether he is guilty of misogny and disrespect of women. Although he felt no regret at the time of leaving his first wife, he begins to feel terrified at the thought that he might do it again. That, to me, was the truest sign of his having acquired some wisdom through his immersion in this abandoned library.


Heavy (Memoir) by Kiese Laymon, 2018

It may be possible to separate book authors into two categories. There are those who came up through journalism; for them clarity, organization and precision are paramount. The others are those whose craft evolved through the creative writing process; for them, writing is all about passion, imagination and variety of expression. Kiese Laymon definitely belongs in the latter group. His memoir is all about fervour, spirit and conviction. It’s not strong on narrative clarity or organization. At times, the headlong rush of words made me think of the writing of William Faulkner and, indeed, Mr. Laymon does note at one point that Faulkner was one of his early models. The writing, in that it comes across as one long, extended cri de coeur, also reminds me of some of the work of James Baldwin.

As far as the facts of this life go, Kiese Laymon is a black man who was raised by a single mother in Jackson, Mississippi. In spite of their difficult life on the border of poverty, she became a well-educated woman with a doctorate and was often called upon to expound on political issues in the media. Mr. Laymon himself became a university prof, teaching English and creative writing. Having been heavy as a kid, he nearly brought his body to the point of collapse from extreme dieting and exercise as a young man. Both mother and son, it appears, have a gambling addiction. Mr. Laymon’s father makes an appearance in one chapter but it’s not very clear what his role has been in his son’s life. The chapters follow a roughly chronological order, but a lot of back-and-forth reminiscence makes it difficult, at times, to figure out what’s happening and when.

What does come through most clearly in the book is the black person’s rage at the injustice inflicted on him and her by white society. Mr. Laymon says his mother told him that: "... what white folk demanded of us was never fair, but following their rules was sometimes safer for all black folk involved and all the black folk coming after us." At another time, his mother tells him: "At some point, you are going to have to understand that people outside of Mississippi never know what to do with us when we’re excellent. So they do what they can to punish us." A long list of injunctions from his mother and other adults – don’t exceed the speed limit, no rolling stops, always speak proper English – ends "....and most important, always remember, no matter what, white folk will do anything to get you."

As an adult, Mr. Laymon shows how that message affected him: "I didn’t want to teach white folk to treat us respectfully. I wanted to fairly fight white folk and I wanted to knock them out. Even more than knocking them out, I wanted to never, ever lose to them again." Just in case we have any doubts, Mr. Laymon gives us several instances where black people were treated unfairly by police and other authorities while white people were treated more considerately. Mr. Laymon and his people had nothing but contempt for the Cosby show because it was unbelievable that a black husband and wife could come home from work and not talk "about the heartbreaking, violent machinations of white folk at both of their jobs."

As someone who enjoys the privileges of being a white male in the Western world, I am surprised to discover that this is the way black people – some of them, at least – feel. I can’t help wondering if the situation really is that bad or if the author is exaggerating. However, I have to accept the truth of what he says he feels about it. There’s only one point at which I’d question his perception. Talking about a doctor’s ministrations during a medical crisis of his grandmother’s, he says "Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered." (In this case, he’s even talking about a black doctor.) Granted, that may be the impression Mr. Laymon got in these situations, but I wonder if it can be true to say that nobody cared.

The entire book is a monologue addressed to Mr. Laymon’s mother. This is one of the reasons that the prose can be hard to follow at times; it’s like dropping in on a conversation when you’ve missed some of the links in the subject matter. Mr. Laymon is ostensibly trying to explain to his mother how he feels about the way she raised him and what has happened to both of them. The conflict between lying and telling the truth looms large. The book starts with his statement that "I wanted to write a lie." Evidently, this means Mr. Laymon would have liked to write a book that was edifying, pleasing and honourable, giving credit to everybody and making them feel good about him. But he chose the option of revealing the scars. That meant looking at ugly truths. At the start of the book, he says: "This summer, it took one final conversation with Grandmama for me to understand that no one in our family – and very few folk in this nation – wants to be free."

Presumably, his way of trying to break free is getting at the truth. One of the most disturbing aspects of the story, for a reader, is the physical punishment dished out by his mother. A sophisticated, well-respected woman, she was beating her son, lashing him with a belt well into his teen years. It’s hard for a reader to get into the mindset of someone like that. (The woman becomes even harder to sympathize with when you find out that, later in life, she was ripping her son off to feed her gambling addiction.) Part of her thinking, evidently, is that she is trying to drive home the message that he, as a black person, has to work harder and achieve more: "Being twice as excellent as white folk will get you half of what they get. Being anything less will get you hell." She’s still correcting him on the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ in their final conversation in the book.

In spite of the great emphasis on truth, I found that final dialogue between mother and son somewhat woolly and inchoate. It’s an encounter in a hotel room attached to a casino that they’ve both been frequenting and they are, presumably, intending to hash out their grievances, clear the air and prepare to face the future with a better understanding of their relationship. But the conversation goes round and round, grasping at truths and clarifications, but never landing on any discernible ones. It’s a hodge podge of well-meaning emanations and evocations with very little resolution. The two of them keep asking questions, not answering them, and veering off in different directions. This sort of groping in the darkness can be effective in a Samuel Beckett play but it doesn’t make for satisfying reading when you’re trying to understand two real people.

Maybe this is in keeping with Mr. Laymon’s leaning towards creative writing rather than strict reportage. In the same vein, he does odd things with tenses and moods. At one point, he’s looking to his future life and saying "I will....I will...." as if he had foreknowledge of what was to come but we know that he’s telling us, from today’s viewpoint, about what did happen. In an even stranger mode, he lapses into a habit of saying "My body knew I would...." as a way of telling us what was coming up in his life. So there’s no question that Mr. Laymon’s writing is inventive and marked by a strongly authorial voice. My unfamiliarity with the culture in which he was raised may explain, at least in part, why I could barely understand any of a conversation that Mr. Laymon had with a pal when they were kids. On the other hand, a dialogue between the two of them when they’re on the point of going to college is perfectly intelligible, with delightful touches of character in the way the language is spoken.

Ultimately, the book offers a hint of hope in spite of all the anger. Mr. Laymon does tell us, more or less in passing, that his mother eventually said that she regretted beating or demeaning him. There’s no question that her ideals are noble. About her son’s interaction with his students, she tells him: "Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent." Mr. Laymon seems to have taken the message to heart: "If I was doing my job," he says, "I had to find a way to love the wealthy white boys I taught with the same integrity with which I loved my black students, even if the constitution of that love differed."


La Finta Giardiniera (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto attribued to Giuseppe Petrosellini; conducted by Russell Braun; directed by Michael Patrick Albano; starring River Guard, Maeve Palmer, Joshua Clemenger, Midori Marsh, Emma Bergin, Saige Carlson, Korin Thomas-Smith; U of T Opera at the Faculty of Music; MacMillan Theatre, Toronto; March 17, 2019

Although Mozart wrote this one when he was nineteen, you’re not exactly getting juvenalia. He’d written several splendid works by then. However, for lack of a libretto by the great Lorenzo Da Ponte, who came along later, he had to make do with a pretty silly story.

The Marchese, Violante, has been engaged to the Count, but, in a fit of jealousy brought on by a misunderstanding, he stabs her and leaves her, thinking she’s dead. But she survives and hires herself out as a gardener on the estate of the mayor where, as it happens, preparations are under way for the Count’s wedding to the mayor’s niece, who is leaving behind a disappointed suitor. Meanwhile, Violante’s servant, who has accompanied her to the mayor’s estate, has his eye on a servant girl but the Count does too. Lots of confusion and subterfuge. Does it all work out happily in the end? Well, this is an opera buffa, after all.

You see several of the tropes here that will emerge in later Mozart operas: the spinster who’s angling for the romantic male lead; the saucy servant girl; the bumbling around in the darkness and mistaking identities; the ensembles where everybody complains about being so confused. (Gilbert and Sullivan borrowed a few of these ideas as well.) The music, coming from Mozart, is inevitably glorious, even if it doesn’t seem as great as in some of the later operas. (Is that just because we know them better?) The students in the Opera School of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music who took the roles at the show I attended all sang and acted well, although some of them seem more ready for professional careers than others do. And the orchestra, under conductor Russell Braun, served up the music with style and elan.

Perhaps because the work is so long (nearly three hours, including a twenty minute intermission), I found the experience somewhat tiring. About three quarters of the way through, I gave up trying to follow the plot twists, simply closing my eyes to concentrate on the music. Part of the problem was that the Macmillan theatre is a sombre, somewhat intimidating place. Something about the ambiance of the place has a distancing effect. The director, Michael Patrick Albano, was at pains to find enough shenanigans to fill the time and space. Although his set design created some marvellous effects – particularly the formidable tree trunks in the forest – I couldn’t help wondering if this piece would work better in a more intimate theatre, somewhat more on the scale of the kind of place Mozart was writing for.


Oslo (Theatre) by J.T. Rogers; directed by Joel Greenberg; starring Jonas Chernick, Patrick Galligan, Amitai Kedar, Omar Alex Khan, Mark McGrinder, Marla McLean, Sarah Orenstein, Jordan Pettle, Alex Poch-Goldin, Geoffrey Pounsett, Sanjay Talwar, Blair Williams, Anders Yates. A Studio 180 Production, Presented by David Mirvish; CAA Theatre, Toronto; March 2, 2019

This made for some of the most intense, hardest hitting theatre I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, it took more than a bit of stamina to sit through the two and a half hours (including intermission) and to keep alert enough to take in all the information.

It’s the story of how a Norwegian academic and his wife (she was an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry) arranged for two Israelis and two Palestinians to meet secretly for private talks that eventually led to what became known as the Oslo Agreement of 1993. Never mind that it was subsequently demolished by on-going aggression and violence. The agreement was an extraordinary achievement of diplomacy for its time.

Arrangements for these meetings had to be kept extremely secret because it was illegal for Palestinians and Israelis to meet. But Terje Rd-Larsen (Blair Williams), the academic who came up with the idea, felt sure that if pairs of people from both sides could meet and talk unofficially, a path to peace could be found. The four people who eventually agreed to take part, thanks to his persuasiveness, were two representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a couple of professors from the University of Haifa.

Not to say that the meetings took place without extreme complications, setbacks and reversals of positions. Playwright J.T. Rogers delivers it all with spectacular theatricality. Perhaps it could be called a docu-drama, in that it’s about events, more than about characters struggling with their inner conflicts. Rogers doesn’t take sides; the play could be equally fascinating to people who are more sympathetic to the Israeli or to the Palestinian side. One dramaturgical technique that I admired was that the writer has Mona Juul (Marla McLean), the woman who works in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, step forward at certain points to tell the audience what has happened between certain scenes. This speeds the play through a lot of material that would have bogged the production down disastrously if an attempt had been made to stage it all.

However, some other aspects of the stagecraft did not impress me as much. Although the cast of thirteen actors played some seventeen roles, only five or six of the characters were interesting. The rest weren’t much more than functionaries, helping to move the business along. I couldn’t help wondering if another playwright could have written a leaner, more focussed play, telling the same story without needing so many roles.

As for the work of the actors who played the interesting characters, the crown would have to go, in my opinion, to Sanjay Talwar in the role of Ahmed Qurie, one of the two Palestinians attending the secret meetings. Mr. Talwar always maintained a tricky balance between a pompous, stodgy official and a man whose warmer, more likeable humanity kept peeking through his stiff carapace. Amitai Kedar, as the senior of the two Israeli academics, was also very engaging in a shambling, absent-minded-professor way. Joel Singer, as an American lawyer who enters the action mid-way through, played a not exactly likeable character, but one who struck a genuine note as the hard-nosed negotiator. Blair Williams, as the Norwegian academic behind the whole project, did not have a particularly glamorous role; in fact, it was somewhat thankless in that most of his involvement amounted to tedious behind-the-scenes finagling and arm-twisting. And yet, Mr. Williams always managed to keep our attention with a picture of a decent man who is doing his best to bring about some major good, even if that requires some bending of his own principles.

One aspect of the production raised a question for me. The acting style was, for the most part, in-your-face declamatory. A lot of shouting and prancing. I could understand why director Joel Greenberg encouraged that; it helped to rivet our attention and drive home the important points of the script. The forceful presentation was especially noticeable in the addresses to the audience by Mona Juul, the woman from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. A bit like a school principal addressing the assembly: "Listen up people!" Effective, of course, but I came away feeling somewhat battered by the harranguing. Would the play have worked just as well if the character had spoken to us in a more intimate, confidential tone?

Just wondering.

[Disclosure: I have a family connection with someone who was involved in this production.]



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