Dilettante's Diary

August 12/06

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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The Shack
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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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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Me and the Jays
July 10/05
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April 27/05
April 18/05
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

On this page: Conversations With Other Women (Movie); Twelfth Night, Henry IV Part One, Much Ado About Nothing and The Glass Menagerie (Stratford Festival); General Comments on the Stratford Festival (Essay); Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story (Cultural History); The Treatment (Mystery); Sunset Limited (Mystery); The Devil Wears Prada (Movie); Skeletons on the Zahara (History/True Adventure); Learning to Listen to Brahms (Essay in response to CBC's Studio Sparks)

Conversations With Other Women (Movie) directed by Hans Canosa, written by Gabrielle Zevin, starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter

A guy flirts with a woman he meets at a wedding. It’s obvious that we’re in for an intense session between the two of them. You have to admire the simplicity of the movie – just two people talking all night long. This piece could work well on stage. But, if you’re not Noel Coward or Edward Albee, such a long stretch of dialogue can be very difficult to pull off.

Which may be why there’s a split screen throughout: to try to give the impression that there’s more happening than there really is. Why else the technique would be used, it’s hard to say. At first, it looked like we were seeing him from her point of view and her from his. Fair enough. But that didn’t work out consistently. Sometimes another couple, on the other side of the screen, were acting out the things that the original couple were talking about. I’m not sure that’s helpful; when you get actors in movies miming events that other actors are describing, it usually suggests a weakness in the writing. On the other hand, the man at some point talks about re-running high school physics movies – things like making time go backwards, making the spilled milk go back into the jug. So maybe there’s some artistic justification for the surrealistic visuals: relativity, quantum mechanics and that sort of thing.

The repartee never did quite reach the Coward-Albee standard. Of course, things turn out not to be quite what they seemed at the outset. But I have no idea whether or not the couple behaved the way any two humans would, since I don’t know anything about the kinds of feelings they were talking about or the situation they found themselves in. But they held my interest. Maybe that’s to the credit of the script. Or maybe it’s the fact that Mr. Eckhart and Ms. Bonham Carter don’t much resemble the typical pair you run into at the neighbourhood barbeque.

Rating: C minus (Where "C" = "Certainly worth seeing")


A Sampling of Offerings from This Season’s Stratford (Canada) Festival

Twelfth Night directed by Leon Rubin, Festival Theatre

In Twelfth Night a shipwrecked Viola tries to get her bearings after washing up on the shore of a strange country. At the outset of this production, I was wondering what strange country we theatre-goers had landed in. Not just because of the unusual setting. The acting was so off-putting, the style of performance so inappropriate that I was asking: can this be Stratford? However, by the time Sir Toby (Thom Marriott), Sir Andrew (Don Carrier) and Maria (Diane D’Aquila) took the stage, we had securely arrived in the Stratford we know and love, the place where actors strut their stuff to great effect. Then came Olivia (Seana McKenna) and Malvolio (Brian Bedford) and we’d pretty well reached theatrical nirvana, comically speaking. What a joy to see the way those two wily actors can bring on explosions of laughter with just a word or a look.

It took me a while to deal with the play’s being set in India. (As you know, I never read program blurbs beforehand.) At first it didn’t make sense that some characters were dressed in Indian garb and others as Brits of the Victorian period. But I gradually deduced that the latter were the colonials. Once you figured that out, the concept worked well. One particular benefit of the design choice was that the turbans offered a simple device to make Viola and Sebastian look more alike. And even if you objected to the Indian setting on some purist grounds, you couldn’t resist the dazzling Indian wedding dance that closed the show.

Henry IV Part One directed by Richard Monette, Tom Patterson Theatre

The buzz about this show was that it wasn’t great "but that doesn’t matter as long as you have a good Falstaff." Let’s face it, if you have an actor who’s any good at all, he can’t go wrong in this role because it’s so well written. Well, James Blendick is very good. Mind you, I’ve seen Falstaffs who were more loveable, more cuddly than Mr. Blendick’s. My favourite was probably Tony Van Bridge at Stratford many years ago. Mr. Blendick’s Falstaff has a slightly aloof, ponderous quality. But he does the job admirably and, thanks largely to him and old pros like Domini Blythe as Mistress Quickly, the tavern scenes work like a charm – especially the one with the mock trial of Prince Hal.

I wasn’t sure that the more serious side of the play was going to work for me. All that palaver about Kings and Lords and Dukes and fathers and sons and uncles and nephews. Does anybody care about all that history? Was it a big deal to audiences in Shakespeare’s day? Do British audiences get off on it today? But, gradually this clean, streamlined production made it all perfectly clear. I could totally understand the testosterone-driven ambition, the resentment towards the guy whom you backed and who now thinks he’s better than you, the feeling that it’s time you got even with him. The slightly modern look to the design helped me to feel that it was all quite relevant today. Amazingly, as it turned out, Mr. Shakespeare had woven one perfectly constructed whole, from elements that seemed quite disparate at the beginning.

The acting was uniformly capable and effective, although I found Hotspur (Adam O’Byrne) a bit preppy with his well-groomed good looks. Although a strapping lad, he seemed less a warrior than some upper-class young Brit throwing a hissy fit because things weren’t going his way. I prefer a Hotspur who has a more manly machismo, a sort of rough-hewn charisma. David Snelgrove gave a very credible account of Prince Hal’s waffling between dissolution and duty but I regretted not being able to hear the poetry in his lines. Why is it that so many of the younger actors can’t seem to deliver the speeches "trippingly on the tongue" (as Hamlet puts it), with the innate sense of the rhythm and the beauty of the language that the older actors – Scott Wentworth as King Henry, for instance – do so well? Is it because the new generation of actors has grown up on television and movies where the art of speaking well matters about as much as treading water in a cyclone?

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Stephen Ouimette, with additional direction by Marti Maraden

The productions of Twelfth Night and Henry IV convinced me that Mr. William Shakespeare is a writer worth watching. The construction of those two plays is phenomenally good. You begin to think that a summer festival devoted to his plays would be a good idea. With this play, though, his future as a playwright begins to look a little less certain. To begin with – that title. It’s far from being a comedy about "nothing"; there’s some really bad stuff going down here. The worst of it is that it’s hard to see what sets the dastardly doings in motion. Then there’s the sameness of the first half of the play, which is all about the nobles and the soldiers. You begin to long for the rustics to provide a change of scene and of mood, a bit of colour. When the yokels do eventually show up, they’re too utterly dumb, there’s nary a Falstaff or a Maria among them, and their link to the main plot is cursory. Besides, there’s far too much silly word play. The malapropisms of Dogberry, although they got plenty of yuks from the audience at this performance, stoop about as low as you can go for humour without resorting to farts or banana peels.

But this production makes the best of the material. No question that Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock lean towards the mature end of the scale when it comes to the possibility of incarnating Benedick and Beatrice. In fact, Donaldson’s middle-aged "confirmed bachelor" made for a very plausible Benedick. I found Lucy Peacock a bit mannered at first – jerky, actressy movements – but she grew on me and I wasn’t noticing the quirks after a while. Together, the two actors gave a very spirited and convincing version of the sparring lovers.

All the old vets of the Stratford stage (eg. Paul Soles, Gary Reineke) produced their excellent work as usual but, once again, some of the younger members of the company worried me. Some of them don’t have a clue about the right style for Shakespeare, particularly the parts that used to be described as"character" roles. You get the feeling that these young people have studied endlessly the motivations and the subtext and the psychology but they simply don’t know how to stand and deliver in the grand style that we used to take for granted at Stratford. This becomes painfully obvious when you see them onstage with such masters of the art as Bernard Hopkins (Verges). Can it be hoped that they will acquire a comparable mastery of the craft in due time? On the other hand, there are some of the younger members – Thom Marriott, for example (the sinister Borachio here and a splendid Sir Toby in Twelfth Night) – who look so comfortable and at home on the Stratford stage that you can’t imagine Mr. Shakespeare himself wishing for anything better.


The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, directed by Miles Potter, Avon Theatre

A person always hopes to find this special and unique treasure of the theatre in its perfect incarnation. The word-of-mouth on this production was good, so I thought it might wipe out the unhappy associations with the Canstage production in Toronto about a year ago. (See Dilettante’s Diary, Feb 4/05 page). On entering the Avon Theatre and finding my seat 14 rows back, my heart began to sink. How could this delicate piece survive exposure in such a vast auditorium? I tried to reassure myself with the thought that this was probably about the same size as the venue where The Glass Menagerie first appeared on Broadway. And that production, by all accounts, came off not too badly.

What an amazing experience it must have been for those first audiences of this play. To have an actor come out at the start and make a few comments about the play, about how it’s a memory play and that’s why there’s violin music in the background, to tell them the number of actors in the play, to speak about its structure and so on. What must those audiences have been thinking? Would any of them have had any previous experience of the Brechtian break-down of the theatrical illusion? And what would they have made of the play itself? In terms of plot, it seem to be about nothing. Somebody comes for dinner; he doesn’t live up to expectations. End of story. Was there any precedent for such a play? In some ways, Chekov’s plays are about as little as that, but in Chekov there’s much more happening around the nothing that is happening at the at the play’s core. This play feels so fragile that you keep thinking it could fall apart at any moment. But it doesn’t. Gossamer it may be, but it’s as strongly constructed as a spider’s web.

As the narrator, Steven Sutcliffe doesn’t start off bitter and self-pitying as most Tom’s do. Unlike any Tom I’ve ever seen, Mr. Sutcliffe has charm, good humour and whimsy. In fact, his opening narration struck a tone that reminded me of Garrison Keillor. When Mr. Sutcliffe mentions the presence of the violin in the wings, he seems to be poking gentle fun at the kitschy quality of this theatrical presentation of his own memories. This is a Tom who does genuinely love his mother (most Tom’s obviously love their sister) and wants the best for her and Laura. He’s anything but the selfish boor his mother takes him to be. So, when his frustration and disappointment lead to an explosion of anger, it’s all the more shocking and heart-rending.

Seana McKenna strikes a slightly shrill note as Amanda. I’m always hoping for an Amanda who brings out the poetry of the role, a fading flower who struggles to keep her face to the sun. If you get that fragility, then her steel inner core is all the more impressive. Ms. McKenna gives us the strength in abundance but not much of the poetry. However, maybe her tremendous energy, her sparks, even her shrieking are needed to put the play across in such a huge venue. And she made me notice things I’d never seen before. Where does Amanda get off calling Tom selfish? He pays the rent, after all. You see how complex this woman is. And I never felt her desperation so keenly: she truly does have a terrible problem on her hands and she is fighting like a tigress for her children.

Why do contemporary actresses play Laura as if she is suffering from a head injury? I believe this is a mistaken attempt to read the author’s biography into the play. We all know that the character of Laura is based on Mr. Williams’ sister who was eventually lobotomized. He felt remorse about her (survivor guilt?) as long as he lived. Fine. But the text of the play says only that Laura is lame and very, very shy. That does not mean that she should talk like an automaton. Still, Sara Topham does some excellent work here, particularly by virtue of her stillness, her silent presence at many moments.

The one exception to my general disappointment with the Canstage Menagerie in Toronto was Seann Gallagher’s performance as the Gentleman Caller. He was so attractively winning and sincere that you could see how any Laura would bloom under his gaze. With Matthew MacFadzean, you get a very different situation. It would be going too far to call his Gentleman Caller sleazy but he is definitely heading down the road towards the land of the used car salesman. He is slick, superficial, none too bright or attractive, but neither is he mean or conniving. He is essentially good-hearted, if a bit dim. Such a non-romantic Gentleman Caller is something of a disappointment but you could make a good case for Mr. MacFadzean’s interpretation. After all, Laura’s hardly in a position to be able to distinguish between fool’s gold and the real thing. It’s entirely plausible that she would swoon over a flim-flam man.

In spite of my quibbles with this production, I’d have to say that it has lots going for it – if the fact that I was wiping away tears much of the time is any indication. One advantage of the huge space of the Avon theatre is that it allows for an airy, open set with a suggestion of soaring tenement buildings and fire escapes in the background. Everything is lovingly tinted in a sepia tone. One interpolated scene shows the family members setting the dinner table upstage behind a sheer curtain. Their movements are exquisitely choreographed as they pass around the dishes, then sit down. The light shining on their white clothes, as seen through the curtain, makes them glow blurrily like ghosts or holy figures in a religious tableau. At times, I’d worried that the audience was taking the play as a comedy but the way everybody jumped to their feet at the end seemed to show that the play was appreciated in the right spirit. And the curtain call finished everything on just the right note: the actors stood across the stage, holding hands and bowing, with bittersweet smiles on their faces, looking sad and weary.

General Comments on the Stratford Festival

It has been a long time since I’ve seen so many plays at Stratford in one season. And I’m happy to say that, on the whole, I enjoyed each of these plays more than any one play seen at the festival in recent years. The standard is well up to the mark of the good old days when Stratford was the mother church where all theatre worshippers in Canada made their annual pilgrimage to see how it was done at the holiest of shrines.

But I, as the self-appointed overseer of all things cultural in Canada, have some problems with Stratford. My concerns about actors, especially young ones, have been mentioned in the reviews of the plays.

The audiences worry me too. Time was, if you were young and hip and cool and living in Toronto, you went to Stratford every summer to check out what was happening. There were buses and trains. One bus would pick you up at the festival theatre after a show and drop you in Toronto around 1 am. Or you’d hitch a ride with friends. As I look around the audiences now, I don’t see that young, hip, cool crowd. Well, some of us may still be hip and cool, at least in our own estimation. Is it just that the buses and trains don’t run very frequently now? Partly. But there’s also the fact that there’s a lot more theatre in Toronto. What with the Fringe, Summerworks, the various Shakespeare in the park productions, not to mention the travelling mega hits, you could probably go to a different show every night of the week without leaving town.

Does this mean that the festival is left catering to elderly tourists, many of them American? Not entirely. But it does explain the festival’s inclination in recent years towards well-worn American musicals. Does anybody remember the days when Stratford would produce The Marriage of Figaro two years in a row at the Avon theatre? Sigh.

Still, there are young people in the audiences. Some families with teens were sitting near me at Glass Menagerie. It was good to hear the young peoples’ enthusiastic response to the play. But it never occurred to me that there were so many laugh lines in Menagerie. This audience was finding them all over the place. You almost felt that the laugher came as a relief from the more serious tone of the play. It was as if people didn’t know how to take a show with no laugh track and no commercial breaks: surely you can’t expect us to sit still and concentrate on something that the author might want us to think about?

Even in the Shakespearean comedies, you could feel the audience’s impatience with any material that wasn’t laugh-producing. It seemed that people weren’t willing to quietly absorb the sacred words of Shakespeare, the way my generation was taught to revere them. Is this new attitude good for the theatre? One could argue that it is. Who can complain about audiences having a good time? And yet I worry that our grandchildren will be getting a very different Shakespeare from the one that I have known. Bring on Cirque de Soleil. Bring on Walt Disney. Give us Chris Rock as Othello. Hamlet la Jim Carrey. Cleopatra as Whoppi Goldberg. Jack Black as Falstaff.

I don’t know whether Shakespeare will be rolling over in his grave or laughing. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as the show goes on.


As mentioned on the July 18/06 page, we're catching up on library books this summer:

Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story (Cultural History) by Paul Illidge, 2005

Whenever you came to Toronto during highschool years, you had to check the newspaper to find out what was happening at the Crest Theatre on Mount Pleasant Ave. Apart from the Stratford Festival, which was a summer thing, the Crest stood for everything that was excellent in professional theatre in around here. In fact, my high school class took in a Crest touring production of Shaw’s The Arms and the Man at the Grand Theatre, in London, Ont and I was so impressed that I saw it again later that year at the Crest’s home base. Some of the changes resulting from the different venues taught me a lot about theatre.

So I pounced on this history of the Crest. Murray and Donald Davis and their sister Barbara Chilcott had grown up in a wealthy Toronto family with lots of exposure to the arts. After acting training in the US, and considerable success on the summer circuit with the Straw Hat Players, they decided, in 1953, to found the Crest in an old vaudeville theatre that had been turned over to the movies. It’s amazing to think that, until then, Toronto didn’t have a professional theatre company with a home of its own.

The Crest story offers a delicious look at a special time in Canada’s cultural history. You get glimpses of haughty directors who went on to anointed status at the Stratford Festival. There’s the contrast between critics such as the avuncular Herbie Whittaker of the Globe and Nathan Cohen, the Star’s acerbic scourge. Hopeful playwrights like Robertson Davies appear, as well as the celebrated J.P. Priestly whose play, "The Glass Cage," was specifically tailored to the talents of Barbara, Murray and Donald. Not to mention the vignettes of many young actors who went on to become virtual household names in Canada: Bill Hutt, Frances Hyland, Richard Monette, Martha Henry, William Shatner, et al. The accumulated pictures of many of these youngsters virtually justify the book’s publication. And what a surprise for me to discover that the young leads in that Arms and the Man that impressed me so much in high school days were none other than Jackie Burroughs and Gordon Pinsent!

A less pleasant surprise was learning that the Crest’s reign of glory lasted just 13 years. It’s hard to say what caused its ignominious end. Financial and artistic mismanagement? The theatre’s uptown, residential location? An image that was perceived as too WASP for the changing times? The not-exactly-secret homosexuality of the Davis brothers? Political in fighting among the arts community? Sniping from the Crest's enemies (i.e. Nathan Cohen) which lead to the Canada Council’s pulling the financial plug? Probably all of these things contributed. Whatever the precise cause, when Toronto worked up the enthusiasm and funding to establish a flagship theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre, the Crest was ruled ineligible for consideration as the resident company. All that was left was for the Crest to quietly fade away, remaining immortal only in the memories of certain star struck teenagers like me.

Author Paul Illidge deserves credit for bringing together such a massive amount of research on a fascinating piece of our cultural history. You might expect the book to become nothing but a re-printing of cast lists after a while. But no. Mr. Illidge manages to find plenty of off-stage drama to keep the story moving. This is not to say, however, that there is much pleasure to be gained from the quality of the writing. While not quite fawning in tone, it sounds something like a combination of commissioned family history and a corporate p.r. In the first chapter, for instance, Mr. Illidge quite unnecessarily goes back nearly 200 years to establish the Davis family’s illustrious beginnings in Toronto. Many sentences are far too long, crammed with too much information. Several of them begin with startlingly misplaced modifiers. Often the chronological sequence is unclear and sometimes the point of an anecdote emerges with difficulty. Still, I devoured this book greedily during a few hours at the cottage. On reflection, I think I know why. Every little boy’s most cherished dream is to grow up and have his own theatre where he can put on plays. (At least that’s how it was for every little boy that I ever was.) The Davis brothers and their sister lived that dream. Good on them!


The Treatment (Mystery) Mo Hayder, 2002

I almost gave up on this book. At the beginning, a lot of technical stuff about police procedure makes for choppy reading. Then there’s the annoying filler material: some dreary stuff about a trauma in the detective’s background and another melodrama about something horrible that happened to his girlfriend. But the main story – about two parents who were bound and gagged while their little boy was abducted – held my attention. Ms. Hayder does crime and gore very well. The extent of depravity offered up here is truly horrifying in a satisfying way, if you like that sort of thing. On the other hand, you might want to avoid the sicko material. This book raises a thorny question for a reader: for the sake of a good story, is it ok for a writer to describe scenes that no decent person would even want to imagine?


Sunset Limited (Mystery) by James Lee Burke, 1998

Opening this book was something like dipping into a grab bag. By the time it had arrived in a pile from the library, I had no idea why it had appeared on my list. It’s not a recent book, so presumably somebody had said something good about the author.

Turns out that the hero-narrator of this book, Dave Robicheaux, does some sort of law enforcement (not too sure of his status) somewhere in the backwoods, not too far from New Orleans. But he also appears to own a bait-store-boat-rental-caf operation. The book follows more or less a pedestrian putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other structure: "I did this....and then I did that." What kept me reading for a while was the fact that Robicheaux struck me as a rather interesting guy. Essentially, he appears to be a hard-boiled man’s man. But he’s also a member of AA, with a wife and daughter he's devoted to, he speaks of going to Mass regularly and he has a rather poetic way with descriptions.

The number of despicable people that he encounters in one day and the atrocities that they have inflicted on other human beings go far beyond the credible – even for Louisiana. I read about half of the book’s 300 pages and still couldn’t follow much of what was happening, partly because the connections between the different plot elements were so complicated, partly because of the liberal use of baffling local slang. I couldn't help thinking this might be an attempt to live up to a style the author had great success with previously but it comes off as nearly a parody. In any case, I’m not keen on mysteries where the investigation keeps going further and further into the background to discover macabre events of long ago that are supposed to explain what’s happening now. Maybe you have to visit this author’s world time and again to get to know your way around in it and to be able to follow his stories. I’m not planning a return trip any time soon.


The Devil Wears Prada (Movie)  directed by David Frankel, with Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci

I think this movie’s supposed to convince you that the fashion world is fake and superficial. What it showed me is that movie-making is fake and superficial: a package of implausible situations, stupid set-ups, unbelievable characters and laborious expository dialogue. Like I’m supposed to believe that Anne Hathaway is some kind of overweight klutz who doesn’t know how to dress? Or that she cares about some twit of a boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) who sulks like a baby when her job interferes with his birthday party? Supposedly, she’s torn between loyalty to her pals and her glamorous career in high fashion. No contest as far as I’m concerned. In fact, Meryl Streep gets off a speech that proves that fashion rules. And Stanley Tucci personifies the delights of ambition for its own sake. It’s fun seeing all those fabulous clothes. And if you’ve got to have an ogre for a boss, you couldn’t have a more intriguing one than Ms Streep. She gives an acting lesson on how to be more scary by soft-pedalling the venom. The script never gives her a chance to become an actual human being but she’s damned interesting company.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" = some good, some bad)


In The Blink of an Eye (Science) by Andrew Parker, 2003

Two reasons for reading this book. It comes recommended by Daniel Dennett, whose book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea started me reading about evolution some years ago. But more importantly, I wanted to understand this new author’s thesis: that the emergence of vision accounted for the tremendous surge in the evolution of animal forms in the Cambrian Explosion about 543 million years ago. As I understand it, the appearance of eyes on the scene meant that the cat-and-mouse game of prey or predator suddenly took on a whole new dimension which required everybody to make serious adaptations. As far as I can tell, Professor Parker a young Australian scientist now based at Oxford, proves the point satisfactorily. I’m no arbiter of scientific matters but it seems to me that he deserves full credit for the theory which is, apparently, his own.

But I got through his book on sheer determination. Professor Parker has a long way to go if he wants to join the ranks of popular science writers like Dennet, Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould. Those guys have done a lot to make evolutionary science accessible to ordinary readers like me. Professor Parker apparently wants to emulate them; his book is liberally sprinkled with chatty asides and friendly encouragement. He humbly thanks all the editors and advisors who, he says, made his text much clearer than it would have been without their help. I hate to think what that would have been like. When he attempts to explain technical things like optics, he leaves me in the dust within a couple of sentences. Much of the time, I simply cannot follow his turns of thought. Nor can I get the point of several comments that look like they’re intended as humourous asides . Maybe you have to hear him saying them. Maybe it’s the Australian accent that I’m not catching.


Skeletons on the Zahara (History/True Adventure), by Dean King, 2004

In 1815, the American Brig Commerce foundered on the west coast of Africa. Captain James Riley and his crew of 12, after several hopeless days at sea in a leaky longboat, returned to the shore and let themselves be taken as slaves by nomadic Arabs roaming the Sahara. Captain Riley’s published account of their ordeal, published in 1817, became a best seller of its time. Among its distinguished fans were Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. The book is thought to have done much to strengthen Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.

That book, along with the published memoirs of Archie Robbins, a member of the crew, forms the basis of Dean King’s book. Skeletons on the Zahara has the potential to be one of the great survival stories of all time, up there with Piers Paul Ried’s Alive. Nobody could ever forget that superb book about the Uruguayan football players who survived several months, partly by cannibalism, after their plane crashed in the Andes. But Mr. King’s book doesn’t quite live up to that standard. It gets off to a bumpy start as he tries to fit in too much material by way of background. Come the shipwreck, the pace of the story picks up. But then there are inevitable doldrums during the long trek in the desert: one sand dune looks a lot like another. Mr. King does a good job, though, of introducing interesting information from recent studies on subjects like dehydration.

These days we’re skeptical about the veracity of first-person accounts of ordeals of one kind and another. Mr. King’s impressive end notes add a lot to his book’s credibility. Still, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that some of Captain Riley’s material wouldn’t quite measure up to today’s standards of authenticity. You have to wonder how the captain learned his captors’ language so quickly and thoroughly that he could report extensive negotiations. The wheeling and dealing, the conniving and scheming among the nomads, has a mythical Old Testament flavour. Lots of folding your tent and stealing away in the dead of the night, sort of thing. And what about the captain’s picture of himself as the hero? Regarding one incident, there are two separate reports on record; one makes the captain look pretty bad, the other less so. Maybe it would all be a bit more convincing if Mr. King had included his notes, his questions, his suspicions, his clarifications, within the body of the story. As it is, the main text reads like something between a novel and a documentary; it doesn’t quite satisfy as either.

But I do enjoy stories that show how much human beings can endure when their fortitude is tested to the limit. It’s good to think of them when the crowded subway train is stuck in the tunnel. Or when you’re caught behind somebody who has more than ten items in the express line at the A & P. And the book includes lots of handy info in case you’re ever shipwrecked or lost in the desert. Apparently, it’s ok to drink salt water, as long as you have a bit of fresh water too. And I bet you didn’t know that camel piss tastes better than human.


Learning to Listen to Brahms (Response to "Studio Sparks" CBC Radio Two, August 2/06)

I don’t get Brahms. What do people see in him? Why does the CBC play so much of him? I’d be fine with a bit of his choral music once in a while, maybe an intermezzo now and then. But not all these symphonies and concerti. In fact, I’ve been thinking of starting a "Ban the Brahms" movement.

But the other day, Eric Friesen played Brahms’ first piano concerto on "Studio Sparks" in a recording by Emil Gilels. Eric said just enough by way of introduction to catch my attention. He mentioned that Gilels was short, stout and balding, with meaty hands. Somebody once said something to the effect that he looked less like a concert artist than the third secretary of the Commissariat for Agriculture. But Eric pointed out that Gilels had at his command all the artistic nuance required for this piece: tender, sensitive, stormy, heroic, muscular, etc.

I thought: Hmmmm.....Let’s see. The afternoon was too hot for anything else. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lie there and listen.

Now you have to know that I’m pretty much a pre-romantic guy when it comes to music. For me, the composers of the classical period, especially Haydn and Mozart, hit on the perfect expression of beauty in music. When you hear them you think, "Ah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be." Any piece of theirs carries me smoothly from beginning, through middle, to end. I think this has to do with the form of the music: the structure sustains my attention. Also, the moods are coherent and consistent. If they hit a happy stride, they work through it to a satisfying conclusion. Same with a sad passage – they resolve it before moving on.

Whereas with Brahms (and most Romantics), I hear a nice phrase and I think, "Now that’s a nice phrase," then my mind wanders off and five minutes later I think, "Where are we now? Oh yeah, there’s another nice phrase." Then my mind wanders off again. Nothing sustains, nothing holds together. It’s all a lot of mushy wandering around. I can’t sense a supporting structure to fall back on. With Brahms, I always picture a gloomy room full of cigar smoke where Viennese burghers and their wives are nodding off in thickly upholstered chairs after too much kchen mit schlge. Who needs structure in those circumstances?

But the other day, while listening to Gilels, another approach occurred to me. Take it like an aimless ramble through the fields on a muggy summer day. Or like floating down a stream on your back while looking up at the sky. The moods of the sky keep changing. If you can accept that, if you can note each of them in turn and then let go, maybe you can enjoy the ride: now he’s being happy, now he’s sad, now he’s triumphant, now he’s being tender, now he’s worried, now he’s guilty, now relieved, now grateful, now calm.

And you know what? Taking the music this way, I began to notice very beautiful things.  Imaginative use of the brass and woodwinds. Wonderful colours (more so even than in the classical composers?). Some amazing things happening with the rhythms. One minute you think you’re in a Bach keyboard suite, the next minute you’re in a Viennese ballroom.

And so a different Viennese image comes to mind. Instead of the smoke-filled parlour, how about Freud’s consulting room where the patient is lying down looking at the ceiling and emoting about everything? (I know the reference is chronologically out of joint but we’re ok geographically.) As the listener, you have to set your own agenda aside, you have to listen to whatever the patient wants to say, you can’t expect it to be coherent and orderly, you just have to give yourself to the fascinating discovery of everything that’s in the patient’s soul.

And while we’re on psychiatry, it’s becoming quite clear that my problem with Brahms comes down to defects in my character. I don’t like change. I like control. I don’t like to let go and let it happen. I like to know where I’m going. I’m not willing to wander, to explore, to see what turns up.

But if I can just go with the flow, delightful things can happen. Does this mean that I might start liking composers like Benjamin Britten and – God forbid! – Ralph Vaughan Williams?

you can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com