Dilettante's Diary

Aug 2, 2023

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Reviewed here: The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece (Novel); Valley of the Moon (Short Fiction); The Slowworm's Song (Novel); Rouge Street (Novellas); How to Do Nothing (Essays); Zero Days (Mystery/Thriller); The Tender Bar (Memoir)

The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece (Novel) by Tom Hanks, 2023

This title beckoning from the library shelf brought this thought to mind: now there’s a subject that Tom Hanks might know something about.

But was there a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone to the title of the novel? What is meant by ‘Another’? Is that intended to imply that the studios can churn out a winner any time – which we know to be untrue? And what about the ‘Masterpiece’ designation? Can anybody actually proclaim that a work is a masterpiece without waiting long to see how it’s appraised by viewers some years further down the line? You’ll have to read the book to find your own answers to those questions. Let’s just say that Mr. Hanks is sly enough as an author to keep you wondering what he’s up to on that score.

Meanwhile, he certainly does show you that he knows a lot about movie making. At 400-plus pages, the book leads up to the release of a big contemporary movie, but Mr. Hanks takes you far back into the barely discernible origins of this movie in the 1940s. In that era, a boy in a small town in Northern California loved to draw. We get a lot of detail about his home life. Mr. Hanks has done meticulous research to give us the feel of those times: the fashions, the foods, the fads, the cars, the media. Into the boy’s world came an uncle who was a marine in the Second World War. Somewhat of a soldier of fortune, the uncle dazzled the boy. Later in life, when the boy was working in the comic book industry, he wrote a comic based on his uncle’s adventures. And that eventually became the basis of the movie being that’s made in this novel.

What I find most remarkable about the book is that, for a star of his magnitude, Tom Hanks has an amazing comprehension – and more, importantly, an appreciation – of every effort that goes into the making of a movie. You could even say that one of the main themes of the book is that the success of a finished movie depends on everyone, from the writers and directors and the stars, down to the lowliest gofer. At several points in the book, Mr. Hanks takes time to extol the dedication and expertise of various crew members and, in so doing, he provides lots of information that’s fascinating for many of us who aren’t so familiar with the business. Another message that comes through is that, given so many complications, so many intricate negotiations, so many political and logistical hurdles to surmount, it’s a wonder that any movie ever gets made.

As for the personalities of some of the characters involved in this one, there’s a lot about the director and his rather idiosyncratic career, the egos and past lives of the stars who are cast. One point that Mr. Hanks seems to want to make is that some of the best people involved more or less stumbled into the industry. One key figure, the main assistant to the director, was working as a receptionist at a hotel where the director happened to be staying. Noticing her efficient modus operandi, he persuaded her to become his assistant, a role in which she solves some of the major problems that come up in the making of the movie. She happens to hire a young woman who was working as a driver for a car service something like Uber. The driver’s decisiveness and magnanimity so impressed the other woman that the driver became another key member of the movie crew. We see how someone, almost accidentally, is propelled to star status. Bit players also get their moment in Mr. Hanks’s spotlight. He provides vignettes of two elderly local women who are hired to sit on a front porch in one scene and wave to the female star as she strides down the street.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Hanks shows movie making, in spite of all its pitfalls and disasters, as being a highly honourable calling. The director of this movie is a judicious, fair, responsible, attentive, thoughtful and wise man. He’s so devoted to his calling, so aware of all the challenges involved, that he doesn’t want anyone ever to say that they “hate” a movie. That’s understandable from his point of view, but I don’t think it acknowledges that a movie-goer may, on occasion, feel that his or her time and money have been stolen by a movie. Even so, Mr. Hanks makes a good case for the wonders that movies can accomplish. One character says: “ ... a great film has the same transformative power as hearing soul-filling music or being spellbound by, say, great oratory like a sermon.” The director’s wife admits that she isn’t enamoured of movie-making but she recognizes that there’s a nobility to it, just like her love of science and teaching: “ ...curiosity fuels you and passion carries you along. Lose either one and you’re done.”

Entertaining as the tale is, I found parts of it hard to follow. That could be because I didn’t quite get the drift of the movie being made. It’s an action movie based on a Marvel type super-hero. It appears that the movie’s plot may have something to do with some twenty or thirty pages of graphics included in the novel; they are, presumably, meant to be seen as samplings of the products of the young man who was working in the comics industry. (In Mr. Hanks’s acknowledgments at the back of the novel, he gives credit to illustrator Robert Sikoryak for the comics included in the novel.) I couldn’t see much connection between the comics and the movie being made, except that the last section of comics features a female hero, as does the movie. At the back of the novel, there’s a QR square with a note inviting us to scan it for the movie’s screenplay. I didn’t.

Granting that Mr. Hanks knows movie-making inside out, what about his writing? At the beginning, I felt there was almost too much telling: too much explaining, too much background, too much setting things up. Scenes weren’t happening with the immediacy, the snap and concision of some of the writing that I like best. During my reading of the novel, however, I got used to the style of narration; it’s like listening to somebody telling some favourite stories. The narrator’s voice is so beguiling that you’re willing to sit through a lot of setup; you know it’s going to pay off.

Which it certainly does in this case. Many passages are brilliant. One of my favourites is the scene where the director has to fire an actor who is turning out to be a jerk. The director is almost obsequious in his kindness towards the actor, praising the actor in the most lavish – if somewhat disingenuous – terms and taking all the blame for the unworkable situation on himself. The scene hits you with the impact of the director’s finesse and Mr. Hanks’s writing skill. Another literary flourish that he displays to great effect is that he’ll sometimes convey a key situation – the scene, say, where the male and female stars of the movie have their first kiss on screen – from the points of view of each member of the team who witnessed it. One gimmick that I found very effective was that, when the movie people are gossiping about others in the business, trashing some of them or re-hashing anecdotes about disreputable behaviour – which, apparently, actors are prone to now and then – Mr. Hanks, rather than naming the actors who are being trashed, will quote the storyteller’s dialogue with this insertion: “NAME OF ACTOR HERE.” That makes you feel that they probably are talking about a real person but that Mr. Hanks has the class not to name that person.

If he ever finds that his day job isn’t quite working out for him, it’s not hard to imagine that Mr. Hanks has a career waiting for him in the literary world.


Valley of the Moon (Short Fiction) by Paul Yoon, The New Yorker, July 5, 2023.

I don’t know whether there’s ever been a “typical” New Yorker short story. But I think a lot of readers have an idea of one: the kind of thing originated by, say, John Cheever and John Updike, then carried on by the likes of Alice Munro and Tessa Hadley. Stories about middle class, relatively sophisticated people struggling with the problems in their privileged lives.

Kudos to the New Yorker, then, for occasionally publishing something that falls far outside that genre. Valley of the Moon tells about a soldier who is returning home from war. At first it’s hard to tell where this is happening but it sounds like somewhere in Asia. Eventually, we learn that it’s Korea and, apparently, the combat that has just ended is the one that divided that country. As far as I can tell, the soldier’s home is in the newly designated South Korea. He climbs the hills to the abandoned and half-ruined farmhouse where he was born and where, presumably, his parents died. He settles there, fixing the place up as well as he can, then living pretty much as a hermit, with treks into town to get supplies.

A brother and sister – orphans – arrive, sent by a local church to offer any help he might need. They opt to stay with him for several years. His relationship with them provides almost the only drama in the story. There’s hardly any dialogue. Mostly what we’re getting is the atmosphere of that remote, isolated life and the author’s steady voice telling us what happened over several decades. It’s a kind of story-telling that’s rare these days – almost passť one might say – but thanks to the New Yorker for showing that it can still be so effective.


The Slowworm’s Song (Novel) by Andrew Miller, 2022

Stephen Rose, the narrator of this novel, was a British soldier who served in the troubles in Belfast in the 1980s. He has now received a letter asking him to participate in an inquiry about the conflict. The letter assures him there’s no legal compunction about his appearing, no risky consequences, but the invitation has proven a major upset to his peace of mind. Clearly, something dreadful happened when he was in Belfast and he doesn’t want to revisit those days. We’re about half way through the book before we find out what traumatized him. On the part of the author, Andrew Miller, the incident is handled adeptly. We see everything leading up to it, we see the aftermath, but we don’t see the actual incident, even though we know clearly what happened.

Stephen never says so explicitly but we get the feeling that he’s a rather lonely man. The book is written as a letter to his young adult daughter, with whom he’s trying to build a more nurturing connection. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that he’s been ‘estranged’ from her, given that he didn’t have much to do with her in the first place. He and his daughter’s mother met in a sort of free-wheeling hippie commune. Around the time that the woman found she was pregnant, she decided that Stephen was a loser (he was in jail for dealing drugs at this point), so she went to live with her mother and didn’t encourage Stephen’s involvement in their daughter’s life. Even so, he’s feeling bad about not having tried harder to be present to his daughter. He made a few attempts – such as appearing at her graduation from military training – but now he wants to try to make up for missed opportunities. Their relationship looks promising but it pains him a little that she doesn’t call him “Dad;” she still uses his first name.

The writing is smooth, elegant, concise, without being showy. Mr. Miller’s description of the Belfast tour of duty is so vivid that I wondered if he had served there. In his acknowledgments, though, he thanks a step-sister and a step-brother for helping him with the military information. Wherever he got it, he has turned it into a rivetting account of each day’s hours of terror interspersed with hours of boredom. I did find one slight lack of versimilitude in the account of army life: there’s very little of the vulgarity one expects in that context. However, Stephen’s not replicating any crudity may have to do with the fact that this book is written as a letter to his daughter.

Apart from a few people – such as Stephen, his father, Stephen’s daughter and her mother – I found many of the characters in the book not very vivid, not people you felt you knew well. In the case of his daughter, you felt Stephen’s urge to do everything he could to help her have a good life, but you didn’t often get the feeling that he cared much about most people. Perhaps he was aware of that; he says at one point, that he worries “... that I’ve spent a lot of my life not noticing what other people are going through.”

That could be why there’s little dialogue in the book. But Stephen is such an engaging narrator that you’re more than willing to hang in with him. One of the first things that got me was his comment about the orchids in the nursery where he works: “The slender stems, the jewelled flowers. And they have an alertness to them. They look like they’re paying attention, like they might be slightly more intelligent than other flowers.” As a recovering alcoholic, he talks about settling into an A.A. meeting: “Then we let down the net and haul up some of the disgusting things we’ve done. And don’t let anyone tell you confession isn’t competitive. No one is going to stand up and talk about stealing paper clips from the office.”

One thing that makes you trust him is the tentative tone to his narrative. He’ll admit to uncertainties; he’ll qualify statements as in: “When not in use the knives are kept in a locked drawer. Or the drawer is usually locked. It’s supposed to be locked.” After telling of a pep-rousing speech from a doctor in a rehab facility, he admits: “Actually, he didn’t say that last bit and I’m being unfair to him.” In another instance, he gives his interpretation of a man’s motives for behaving a certain way, then admits: “It might have been much simpler than that, of course.” This makes you feel you’re listening to a real person, who can doubt his impressions just as we all do.

On that question of one’s reality, he offers some of his most intriguing thoughts. Everybody in rehab for alcoholism is supposed to look inside themselves, he says, but he finds the concept confusing. “It’s where we’re supposed to find ourselves – our real selves. Which is something else I have a problem with. Are the men here not already real? Am I not? How can anything be more or less real, I mean, if it exists at all? I’m being too literal, of course. I get that ... [my elipsis] ... But my point is, we’re all here trying to fix ourselves up, busy with it every day, and we don’t even know what we are, not really. How do you fix something when you don’t know what it is, what it’s supposed to be?”

When trying to decide whether or not a novel is worthwhile, some of the questions I ask myself are: Does this novel tell me anything significant or helpful about how another person navigates his or her way through this life? Does it help me to understand one or more humans better? Does it make me think about life’s questions more? Stephen Rose has his unique way of coping with the problems life throws at him but his doing so tells me a lot about what it means to be a human in today’s society.


Rouge Street (Three Novellas) by Shuang Xuetao (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang), 2022

I can’t remember whether it was the New York Times or the New Yorker that recommended this book. It sounded like a way to find out something about a contemporary way of life that was quite different from mine, in a world very unfamiliar to me.

One could describe these novellas, in a general way, as realistic, nitty-gritty accounts of everyday life as some people experience it, yet with touches of surrealism or fantasy thrown in. In one of the stories, a young man is surrounded with bustling members of his extended family but he’s hoping to invent a flying machine that will enable individuals to rise above the crowds and make their way through the air like birds. In another story, a father who is leaving town for work sends his young son to live with an aunt in a somewhat kooky situation. The boy develops a fond relationship with the aunt’s daughter. The two of them, while chasing a suspected murderer, fall through the ice on a pond, whereupon we’re treated to a bizarre scenario that runs through their minds as they’re trying to break through the ice and survive. The third story, told from different points of view, talks about the exploits of several people. One of the central characters is a young man who becomes a cop and who’s involved in trying to solve the mystery of the murder of some taxi drivers. Among other elements, this story includes hints of discontent with the revered memory of Chairman Mao, and a man has friendly meetings with his deceased dad who appears to him on occasion.

The title of the book, Rouge Street, is the English translation of the Chinese name of a neighbourhood in Shenyang, the author’s birthplace in China’s northeast. The area isn’t exactly a slum or a shantytown but it’s a place that’s known for its insalubrious atmosphere, for harbouring a lot of shady, borderline criminality. It wasn’t always easy for me to understand what was going on here, not just because of the departures from reality. For a person unfamiliar with the geography of the place, following the action can be challenging at times. Also, for a reader who doesn’t know Chinese, the names of the characters can be hard to keep in mind. That often makes it difficult to tell who’s being talked about at any point. (This is a case where it would definitely be a good idea to make a list of the names as you go along.)

But certain general impressions of the way of life come through clearly. People work hard; they’re always scheming to get ahead in some way or another. They’re always trying to put aside some cash for eventualities. There’s a lot of bribing of officials and bosses in hopes of advancement. Family loyalties matter a lot, but practicalities reign supreme. Not much attention is paid to emotion. In one story, for instance, a courtship between a man and a woman – set up by a matchmaker – amounts to one boat ride that takes a page and a half to describe. Then comes the marriage of the two people, then the rest of their lives. Despite the rather grim tone of much of the book, there are flashes of mordant humour. One man, noting that his pension has been increased, says: “I’ll have an extra pair of underpants to wear when I’m dead.”

Looking over this book again while preparing this review, I was struck by the fact that these are the kinds of stories that yield their riches more fully on closer examination. At first, they seem hard, inaccessible, almost forbidding in their taciturnity. Once you get past wanting to “figure out” the stories, once you’re finished with trying to understand, to follow the plots, you begin to soak up a wry, fatalistic wisdom that comes through between the lines. As to my question about the worth of a piece of literature – does it tell us anything meaningful about how people live? – this one depicts a life that we can respect because of the human commonalty that we share. But the point that comes through most strongly – for this reader, at least – is that you and I are lucky to have lives that look so much better to us.


How To Do Nothing (Essays) by Jenny Odell, 2019

For starters, the title of the book is misleading. The book isn’t about doing nothing. Rather, it’s about doing less, being less busy, paying more attention to certain realities, spending less time on frivolous pursuits and fads. The author, an art teacher at Stanford University, describes herself as someone who was driven hither and yon by various demands, professional, social and personal. She gradually learned, though, to stop and appreciate the marvels of ordinary life around her. She became a birder. She started paying attention to the plants that she was passing every day. She gradually learned to wean herself away from the constant calls of the media, to spend quiet time alone at cabins and retreats.

But she’s not advocating a complete withdrawal from the busy world. She wants us to take a sort of arm’s-length interest in it. She wants us to stand back far enough to get a better perspective on things. In this respect, her model is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. When he entered the monastery, he thought he was making a complete break from the affairs of the world in order to focus on heavenly matters. Gradually, he began to realize that his role in life was to view the world from his unique perspective. That led to his becoming a peace activist, even while remaining a monk. In a similar spirit, Ms. Odell wants us to see the affairs of the world in context. That’s the trouble with things like Twitter and other forms of social media. Random remarks fire people up unreasonably because the background of the discussion isn’t accounted for.

This is the kind of book that, when I hear about it, sounds like the kind of book that was meant for me. Unfortunately, this one didn’t turn out that way. I think that’s mainly because Ms. Odell doesn’t give me enough of the feeling of her new way of life. While reading the book, I don’t feel that I’m dwelling in the kind of contemplative space that she’s advocating. It feels to me like I’m dealing here with a person who, yes, does take time to smell the roses, but she’s rushing around researching this book, digging up references, checking sites that might be relevant, visiting places that seem to chime with her theme. Almost every page contains at least one – and often more than one – reference to some other writer’s work. The book’s index lists 23 pages of names: everybody from Ralph Abenathy to Mark Zuckerberg. Far from being a more peaceful, restful person – one who knows how to “do nothing” – Ms. Odell seems like somebody who’s swamped with feverish research. Rather than getting a feeling of a person’s inner calm, I feel that I’m getting a list of somebody’s impressive readings.

Still, Ms. Odell’s message is an important one. She wants us to be wary of the many factors in our society that try to rob us of our most valuable resource and monetize it: our time. Another of her themes is that capitalist productivity – or “progress” – usually amounts to a lot of destruction. One of her ideas that I really like is that we should stop trying to think that we can ever achieve the perfect society. It’s all about trying to improve things gradually. I’m glad that she’s drawing our attention to all these things.

But her book exhausts me.


Zero Days (Mystery/Thriller) by Ruth Ware, 2023

When I see a new Ruth Ware on offer, it’s a must-read. Her 2019 book, “The Turn of the Key,” was one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time.

In this one, a young woman named Jack (for Jacintha) is fleeing from the police because she’s accused of a murder she didn’t commit. (For me to say who was murdered would spoil one of the book’s important surprises.) Evidence keeps piling up that makes Jack look guilty. The cops aren’t going to consider the possibility that she’s not the culprit, so all she can do is try to out run them, meanwhile hoping that she can find the real murderer. In her professional work, she is called on to physically test security systems that companies have set up, so she’s fit and agile, able to climb fences, to pick locks, to outsmart guards, to improvise survival tactics. She’s ingenious (and so is the author) at figuring out ways to get out of impossible-seeming binds – which she keeps running into, one after another. That’s the best thing about the book.

It’s also the biggest problem with the book. It’s rather thin, in a linear way, in that Jack stumbles from one crisis to another. We’re getting the story in her own first-person narration, so there’s no alternate point of view to provide variety. And there’s nobody much for her to consult with, no “Watson” character. Apart from occasional encounters with helpful people, there are few interesting dialogues with cohorts to flesh out the story, to elaborate on its complexities. Still, I kept reading to find out what was going to happen, to learn how she was going to extricate herself from each mess that came up. The book is a good read in that sense. And the explanation of the skulduggery behind the murder is intriguing.

But I started skimming through the profuse descriptions of Jack’s feelings, her desperation, her panic. Too much of the sweaty palms, racing heart and turning stomach for me. A serious injury that she incurs during her flight from the law is meant to add tension and urgency but I couldn’t help noticing that the on-going fuss over this injury also helps to beef up the text by a thousand words or so.

While it may seem to some of us that Jack is making a series of bad decisions, Ms. Ware is at great pains to make us sympathize with Jack’s reasons for not cooperating with the police. I was never completely convinced, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe other readers would be more understanding towards her. Another aspect of the story was almost completely beyond my understanding: a complicated bitcoin transaction near the end of the book. I read the relevant sections of text a couple of times to try – not all that successfully – to come to grips with what was happening. I wish Ms. Ware had provided a clearer explanation of that incident for the benefit of some of us readers.


Tender Bar (Memoir) by J.R. Moehringer, 2005

This writer happens to be the ghost author of Spare. That, reportedly, is the fastest-selling non-fiction book in the history of publishing. So, knowing that the words J.R. Moehringer has put in Prince Harry’s mouth are going over well, let’s see what Mr. Moehringer has to say for himself.

This memoir, published 18 years ago, tells of the author’s somewhat rackety childhood, his struggles through various attempts at making a living, then his gradual emergence into the life of a successful journalist. The writing is lively, vivid and engaging. His comic treatment of his brief career as a salesman in the Home Furnishings department at Lord & Taylor is highly entertaining. The less he tried to be good at it, the more successful he was. And his account of his apprenticeship at the New York Times is essential reading for anybody keen on the world of journalism. Not surprising that Prince Harry trusted this writer to bring flair to the royal memoir.

These days, we tend to be skeptical about aspects of memoirs that may not be entirely factual, that may be “re-imagined,” so to speak. That question comes to mind regarding several of the long dialogues reported here many years after they happened. But Mr. Moehringer does say, at some point, that he was always busy making notes about what he was hearing in a neighbourhood bar in the hopes of making a novel of it all some day. And, in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, he thanks people who helped to confirm his memories. Most of these people, he says, allowed him to use their real names in the book; only a few names were changed.

As the title of the memoir suggests, a key theme running through it is the author’s fond memory of that neighbourhood bar that he started frequenting when he was a child of about eight years old. Several of the characters that he remembers as bar regulars come up again and again in his accounting of his life; they act as sort of – not quite mentors – but signposts on the path of life. His father was a radio announcer whom the child knew mostly from listening to his honeyed baritone on the radio. The man drifted in and out of the child’s life with out much dependability or regularity. Hence, the boy’s looking for male influence in his life. But he notes one interesting difference between himself and the men in the bar: he couldn’t identify with their macho attitude to women. Having been raised largely by his single mother and her female cohort, he says “I liked them too much, and I was too much like them, to be predatory.”

If there’s ever any question of whether you, as a reader, can empathize with a writer of a memoir, sometimes a key passage does it for you. In this case, Mr. Moehringer is telling about the time when one of the denizens of the bar looked over his shoulder at the book he was reading and asked him what it was about. Here’s part of Mr. Moehringer reply: “What’s it about? Every book worth a damn is about emotions and love and death and pain. It’s about words. It’s about a man dealing with life. Okay?”

A writer who can say that has won me over completely.

Or maybe not completely. I had one problem with the book: I couldn’t get with the ambiance of the bar the way the author wanted me to. The talk among the bar patrons about boxing and horse racing left me standing on the sidelines, not knowing where to look. Of the many vivid characters the author wanted us to appreciate, only three stood out as memorable for me. When the names of the others came up, I couldn’t remember who they were. I fully appreciate and accept that the bar meant a lot to Mr. Moehringer, even after he quit drinking – the same way an alma mater, a beloved gym or church might have meant a lot to another person – but the lure of the bar never really clicked for me. Even though I was enjoying many parts of the book, it seemed that I was missing the heart of it.

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