Dilettante's Diary

Sept 18/07

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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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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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The most recent reviews will be found towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: The Hunting Party (Movie); An American Childhood (Memoir); Will This Do? (Memoir); Two Days in Paris (Movie); The Do-Gooder's Diet (Health, Wellness, Fiction)

The Hunting Party (Movie) written and directed by Richard Shepard; starring Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg

Richard Gere, a washed-up war correspondant, teams up with a buddy (Terrence Howard) who was his camera man in Bosnia. They return to their old stomping grounds to flush out the world’s most wanted war criminal. Sounds like a great movie. In some ways, it is – which is what you’d expect from the guy who also wrote and directed The Matador. There’s a similar brash, in-your-face spirit to this movie. But I would have enjoyed it a lot more.....

.....If it didn’t all seem so fake. We get prolonged voice-over narrative, then clumsy expository dialogue. People keep changing their minds without any plausible motivation. The heroes keep getting get their asses saved in the nick of time by mere coincidence or luck

....If there was one speck of believability about the bonding between the heroes. Richard Gere does great work as the boozy newshound but there’s no chemistry between him and the bland Terrence Howard. Despite strenuous sessions of bad language in an effort to pump things up, the relationship never catches fire. Nor are matters helped much, except in a cosmetic way, by the addition to the team of Jesse Eisenberg as a wet-behind-the ears young journalist who staggers around with his mouth open, constantly in fear of messing himself. Not that it’s his fault. The script saddles him with a one-note role – except for one cool scene where he gets to show another side.

....If they didn’t keep resorting to tricky camera angles: shots of rooms from what would be the point of view of a spider in an upper corner; shots looking up at people’s chins from the level of their belly buttons. You keep wondering: are they trying to make this all more interesting? don’t they trust the material?

....If the uneasy mix of comedy and evil, fact and fiction worked better. In the midst of the three-stooges bumbling on the part of the reporters, a flashback tells us what motivates the Gere character’s search for the arch villain. For a few moments, we’re bathed in nauseating, mawkish, sentimental melodrama – complete with sobbing violins.

.....If I weren’t so cynical. But that’s the way it is. At least, I’m real. Or I think I am – more real, at any rate, than this movie.

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


An American Childhood (Memoir) by Annie Dillard, 1987

I'm reading the newspaper and I notice a quote from Annie Dillard. She’s saying something about the time of life, around age thirteen or fourteen, when you begin to see the world on your own terms. I’m like: is that how it goes? Then Martin Levin, the books editor of the Globe and Mail raves about Annie Dillard’s books in a recent column, so I figure it’s time to start reading her.

The introduction to this memoir made me a bit wary – a poetic geographical/historical evocation of her hometown of Pittsburgh. Eventually, though, she started talking about how her parents would sit around analyzing jokes with their kids, experimenting with more effective ways of telling the stories. Who could not love such a family? Her mother comes off in this book as a particularly colourful character. And there’s a very loving portrait of a kindly, rich grandmother.

At its best, the memoir has a kind of Dylan-Thomas quality in its evocation of childhood. You have to give Ms. Dillard credit for her powers of observation. What other writer has noted the way the corners of a book make dents in the palms of your hands? On the whole, though, there’s a lack of specificity in the book. We get a lot of rumination but not many facts. In a chapter about boys in her dancing class, we learn nothing about any one boy; instead we get the likes of this: "Ah, the boys. How little I understood them! How little I even glimpsed who they were. How little any of us did...." I kept wishing Ms. Dillard would give us some flesh-and-blood individuals instead of this woolly speculation.

Worst of all, I never seemed to grasp her main point – that business of seeing the world and your place in it on your own terms, even though she reprises the theme again and again. For instance: "I never woke, at first, without recalling, chilled, all those other waking times, those similar stark views from similarly lighted precipices: dizzying precipices from which the distant, glittering world revealed itself as a brooding and separated scene – and so let slip a queer implication, that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness."

Huh? Either I’m too obtuse to experience the rarefied delights of a consciousness like Ms. Dillard’s or she’s indulging in some mighty fine writing that doesn’t mean much.


Will This Do? (Autobiography) by Auberon Waugh, 1991

I discovered the novels of Auberon Waugh (son of the more famous Evelyn) while living in Fort St. John, British Columbia in the 1970s. By some miracle, the little local library had copies of these hilarious samples of British wit at its malevolent best. You might say, then, that Auberon Waugh saved my life by getting me through a bleak winter in that isolated outpost. You might also say that he nearly brought my life to a premature and tragic end. On a car trip in the interior of BC that year, I was regaling my companions with some of the best bits from the Auberon Waugh novels; our driver was laughing so hard that he nearly put the car up a telephone pole.

Jump forward several decades. The New Yorker reviews a book by Auberon’s son Alexander. The article mentions that three generations of Waugh’s – from grandfather Evelyn to grandson Alexander – have written memoirs, but that Auberon’s is the best. So I'm keen.

Will This Do?, published in 1991, ten years before Auberon died at the age of 61, serves up the stuff of many Brit boy memoirs: growing up in lordly country homes, enduring the trials of beastly public schools, suviving the farcical stint of military service. One of the biggest surprises for me was the discovery that the first of Auberon’s outrageous novels, The Foxglove Saga, was written in six weeks one summer when he was nineteen years old and had nothing to do. But the memoir’s juiciest stuff – for anybody who has a taste for celebrity gossip – has to do with the bizarre relationship between distinguished author Evelyn and his progeny. It’s always comforting to know that a much-revered artiste isn’t as nice as you or I.

The latter half of the book details Auberon’s highly celebrated life as a journalist, chiefly as a writer of scabrous satires on public figures. Auberon comes off as a pretty urbane and genial fellow but you have to accept that you’re dealing with a right-wing snob who rejoices in anything that weakens – preferably crushes – the unions. The barrage of name-dropping and score-settling is, I’m sure, delicious for people in the know. For the rest of us, the mention of so many unfamiliar personalities and publications doesn’t mean a whole lot. In spite of occasional flashes of mordant wit, one can’t help feeling that the writer saved his best efforts for his newspaper columns and novels.


Two Days in Paris (Movie) written and directed by Julie Delpy; starring Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Marie Pillet, Albert Delpy.

There’s so much to hate in this movie. Let’s start with the voice-over narration and the hand-held camera. Not sure why I’m so opposed to voice-over narration. Could it go back to some childhood trauma about being tied in a chair and forced to listen to stories? At any rate, on the conscious, adult level of aesthetic appreciation, voice-over narration always strikes me as a lame fallback when a script writer can’t manage to dramatize a story through dialogue and action. As for the hand-held camera, that has become, for my money, a really tiresome clich that film-makers trot out whenever they're trying to make the proceedings seem more exciting than they are – a device which is, for me, literally nauseating.

Then there are the characters. Julie Delpy plays a French woman, now living in New York. She and her American boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) have been travelling in Venice and she has brought him to Paris to meet her family. I could find nothing to like or identify with in these vapid, stupid people. He’s a neurotic, narcissistic hypochondriac. She’s a flakey, hysterical liar. Her parents (Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy) are idiots and every taxi driver is psycho. Plus, every man they meet is a former sex partner of hers and they’re all creeps. (We’re supposed to believe Paris is that small? Besides, the joke worked much better for Catherine O’Hara in Best In Show.)

But the worst thing about the Delpy and Goldberg characters is that they bicker constantly in a way that is meant to be witty and clever but is, in fact, just grating. This kind of kvetching can work in the hands of a writer who can make the characters real and their bitching interesting. Granted, there’s a sort of relentless Edward Albee/David Mamet intensity to the dialogue here but the characters don’t for a minute display any viability; they're mouth-pieces for a movie star who wants to create a pseudo-sophisticated vehicle for herself as writer, star and director. It all comes off as one prolonged acting exercise -- see how long you can keep up the stream of complaints without faltering.

Apparently, Ms Delpy is trying to re-create the miracle charm of the little movies by Richard Linklater in which she starred with Ethan Hawke – Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) – both of them talky two-handers. Trying to overlook the fact that her script has nothing like the magic of those earlier ones, I was beginning to think maybe her character had something going for her (she’s pretty, after all) but then she created a horrible scene in a restaurant with yet another former boyfriend. Never mind that she had political correctness on her side, her behaviour was gratuitously ugly. By which time, I was beginning to hope that the two lovers would have a fatal confrontation with one of those terrorists that the Goldberg character kept worrying about. It looked like the safest thing for all of us would be for me to get out of the theatre, even though the movie still had about twenty minutes more of bitching to go.

Rating – Since there weren’t even any decent scenes of Paris, this movie doesn’t rate the "E" rating, as in the Canadian "Eh" (i.e. "iffy"). Rating: F (i.e. "Fergedddaboudit")


The Do-Gooder’s Diet (Wellness/Health/Fiction) by Norma Vale, 2007

No chance of my getting away without full disclosure on this one: my name appears in the acknowledgements. If some moral support was felt from this department, it was meant wholeheartedly. However, having had no in-put as to the contents of the book, I feel free to comment on it.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a devotee of diet literature, just a guy who keeps hoping that his second trimester look doesn’t suddenly blossom into full term pregnancy. So any well-presented information about healthy eating is welcome. In the presentation of her material, Ms. Vale has done something highly original: she has combined a book about eating wisely with a novel. We get Julia, a weight loss coach, communicating by email with six clients. Through their mutual exchanges, we follow developments in the lives of the clients and of Julia. This helps to keep you reading; the 400 pages fly past quickly while you’re wondering what’s going to happen next.

Unlike lots of diet books, this one doesn’t offer some magic bullet for rapid weight loss. Rather, Ms. Vale (who is, in real life, a trained wellness counsellor and an award-winning journalist) encourages her clients – and us readers – simply to adopt healthier ways of eating, along with exercise. There is necessarily a certain amount of repetition as, in her coaching role, she keeps having to reiterate the basics. But you’ll be skimming along thinking you’ve heard it all and suddenly she’ll hit you with a brand new fact. (Did you know that if you start adding more vegetables to your diet, you may need to drink more water to avoid gas problems?)

So what’s with the "Do-gooder" part of the title? Ms. Vale tells her clients that one of the best ways of getting their minds off unhealthy snacking is to reach out to other people: make a phone call, write a note, visit somebody who’s sick, take up some volunteer activity. Hence the book’s subtitle: How to lose weight and keep it off (and make the world a better place). I, as someone who has never done anything nice for anybody, can only point to the testimony of Ms Vale’s fictional clients who claim that it works.

For me, one of the best things about the book is that you get to see how weight management plays out in the ups and downs of everyday life. Instead of some guru who’s constantly preaching at you, we get people coming back with questions, problems and even complaints. This shows you that, in anybody’s real life, the attempt to make important changes is always a mix of progress and setbacks. Which is not to say that ultimately the benefits aren’t real. In fact, Ms. Vale almost makes it sound like it could be fun taking control of your eating and working out how you can get the most enjoyment out of the healthiest choices. Now if only I could be convinced about that business of doing something nice for somebody.....

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com