Sunday, 19 August 2018

Challenging Intellectual Deprivation and Fundamentalist Ideology in Tara Westover's Educated

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because this memoir clearly shows that a father and a brother unequivocally crossed a line.

Author Tara Westover at her alma mater, Brigham Young University. (Photo: Tes / Russell Sach)

Even before reading Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2018), I guessed from its enthusiastic critical and popular reception that it would be a good book. But I was not prepared for how riveting, insightful and well-written it would turn out to be. Westover's multi-layered memoir narrates an astonishing story that begins with her childhood years on an isolated mountain in Idaho, as the seventh child of fundamentalist parents who subscribed to a set of beliefs that she makes clear are far outside the mainstream of the Mormon religion. Home-schooled in the loosest definition of the term, she received no academic education for the first seventeen years of her life and knew little about the outside world. Her learning consisted of reading the Bible, The Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Yet she did well enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University. That begins the second layer of her memoir, which charts her extraordinary progress in acquiring a formal education that resulted in her achieving a Ph.D. in history. But it is the third layer, which explores the tensions between family and outside life, her sensitivity to the unreliable power of memory, and her difficulty in challenging the patriarchal worldview of her father, that lifts her memoir from a remarkable coming-of-age account to a landmark contribution to that genre. It truly astounds.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part II: Dark Underbellies


Author James Lee Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Getty)

Read Part I of this series here.

"For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride." – James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

Since the 1987 publication of Neon Rain, Burke has mastered the technique of writing in the first person, remaining within the consciousness of his chief protagonist, enabling Dave to offer commentary on political, social, moral and philosophical issues. Robicheaux is set once again in the familiar setting of New Iberia along the bayou and opens with Dave seeing the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. He is in a dark psychic space as his wife, Molly, has died in a car accident. In his grief and rage, his sobriety cracks as he succumbs to his demons who "live in me like a snake that slowly swallows its prey." During an alcoholic binge, he fears he might have murdered the taxi driver who killed his wife but afterwards he cannot remember if it really happened. Worse, the investigation of the man's death is assigned to a dirty cop.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Burke powerfully explores the evil that men do when they cross a line.

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World 

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mailcritic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Burke's influence has extended beyond the crime novel to the larger culture. Like some of the best crime novelists, Burke uses the procedural as a vehicle for an overlay of political and social commentary. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which submerged large areas of the poorest parts of New Orleans and exposed scandalous government neglect, even before the tidal surge hit with cuts in federal aid, was the subject of The Tin Roof Blowdown. The novel is comparable to the mammoth Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, and the HBO David Simon series, Treme, for their portrayals of a community after the veneer of civilized society is stripped away and we find out what people are really like. The New York Times reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, declared that Burke's was the "definitive" crime novel about Katrina.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer


Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money." – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings 

“The people who change our lives... give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion 

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings and decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservingly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romantic, friendship, parents and their offspring, and between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situations that will remind readers of real life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real life issues such as Presidential politics; the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis; and the quality of her writing that is by turns laced with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Gripping Courtroom Drama: Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin


Photo: Roy Grogan

Beverley McLachlin retired early this year after serving eighteen years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the first woman to hold that lofty position. According to an excellent profile by Sean Fine, McLachlin "shape(d) fundamental rights as much as any judge in the country's history from the legalization of assisted dying to a huge expansion of Indigenous rights to a rebalancing of how police and the legal system treat people accused of crimes."

Inspired by the example of P. D. James, a mystery writer she admired who maintained a day job and wrote by night, McLachlin began in the early hours of the morning for about a year before her departure from the Supreme Court to write a novel that had been percolating within her for over thirty years. The result of that effort is Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and I am pleased to report that her debut novel is an engaging, well-written, dialogue-driven courtroom drama that has a distinctive Canadian sensibility.

Seeking Redemption in Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts

The late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series, including Greeks Bearing Gifts. (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

"We live in a new era of international amnesia. Who we were and what we did? None of that matters now that we're on the side of truth, justice, and the American way of life." 
 Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts
The sardonic voice above is that of Bernie Gunther, the protagonist of Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam/Wood, 2018) the thirteenth entry of the wisecracking one-time Berlin detective and later private investigator by the late Philip Kerr, who recently died of cancer at the age of sixty-two. Kerr first introduced us to the cynical Gunther in his Berlin Noir trilogy: March Violets (1989),The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991), set respectively in 1936, 1938 (just before Kristallnacht) and 1947, in which he first explored the legacy of Nazism. From the beginning, Kerr was strongly influenced by the American hard-boiled novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His razor-sharp dialogue, astringent character profiles and first-person narratives have been distinctive trademarks of the series.

Kerr turned to other fiction for fifteen years before returning with The One from the Other (2006), in which Gunther poses as a Nazi war criminal as he pursues former powerful Nazis to South America. In Field Gray (2010), Gunther is commandeered to join the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, and serve on the Eastern Front, where he is horrified by the war's atrocities and captured by the Soviets and, as a POW, toils in an uranium mine where most of the captives do not survive. Yet Gunther prevails, returns to Berlin, and is dragooned into solving a crime for the ideological zealot Reinhard Heydrich, who holds a particular fascination for Kerr: this talented and exceedingly ruthless Nazi potentate first appeared in Pale Criminal, later re-surfacing in Prague Fatale (2011) and last year's Prussian Blue. In the latter novel, Gunther repressed his scruples to also serve the loathsome Mafia-like strongman, Martin Bormann.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Moles in American & Russian Intelligence in Jason Matthews's The Kremlin's Candidate

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because spying by its very nature depends upon committing transgressions and lines are crossed when a head of state supports the death of a foreign national.

Author and former CIA agent Jason Matthews. (Photo: Booktopia)

"The world would know that the secret services of Russia were omniscient apex predators that could penetrate the governments of his enemies, discover their secrets, and exert their will over them... His active measures were creating lasting discord in the West, at minimal cost, and if he wanted to unseat an American politician, he had only to release an embarrassing, unencrypted email through WikiLeaks run by the languid dupe hiding in that exiguous Latin embassy in London. Partisan political hysteria now gripping American society would do the rest." 
 – Jason Matthews, The Kremlin's Candidate

The Kremlin's Candidate (Scribner, 2018) is the third and most compelling novel in Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow trilogy, concluding the series that began with Red Sparrow and continued with Palace of Treason. The final novel picks up with a prologue set in 2005, in which Audrey Rowland, an American naval officer and a scientist on a brief assignment to Moscow, is lured into a honey-trap for the purpose of blackmail by Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy. The former ballerina began her career as a trained seductress in Red Sparrow, in which her first major assignment was to seduce CIA spy, Nate Nash, the handler for a Soviet mole, and secure his identity. Instead, she was turned by Nash into becoming a CIA mole in the Kremlin and he becomes her handler and lover. Fortunately, she has the protective advantage of being a synesthete, able to judge the intentions of others by the colours she sees emanating from them.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Masculine Toxicity in Dirk Kurbjuweit's Fear


Author Dirk Kurbjuweit (Photo: Julian Nitzsche)

About halfway through Dirk Kurbjuweit's unsettling psychological thriller, Fear (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and published by the House of Anansi Press, 2017) the narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a Berlin architect, recalls a Christmas dinner he and his wife, Rebecca, hosted for his extended family a few years earlier before the central narrative occurs. His sister was dating a Romanian, a supporter of the dictator, Ceausescu, who having fled his country after the 1989 revolution, ended up in Berlin as the owner of a gym. As a supporter of self-justice, he dismissed Germans declaring that their only interests were "stuffing their faces and watching their pensions" with no "real men" with "the guts to defend themselves." His bravado constitutes a litmus test for what defines manhood.  At the time, Randolph is silently contemptuous of this disdain for civility and of his "ignorant, brutish view of democracy."

On the surface this fascinating tableau is inconsequential as the Romanian exile never reappears, but it does highlight an important motif in the novel: the tension between the values of civility and the rule of law pitted against vigilante justice when there appears no other option for a family terrorized by a stalker. Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear based on his own experience of being stalked.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

A Spy in the Family: Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because spying always entails transgression.

 Karen Cleveland, author of Need to Know. (Photo: Jessica Scharpf)

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” – E. M. Forster, "What I Believe" (1938)
I thought of E. M. Forster's controversial dictum while reading Karen Cleveland’s fast-paced and engrossing spy thriller, Need to Know (Doubleday Canada, 2018). In this instance, however, husband substitutes for "friend." Vivian Miller, a counterintelligence analyst for the CIA in Washington, developed an algorithm which will enable her department to identify Russian sleepers. But she is plunged into a serious crisis when secretly navigating through the hacked computer of a mid-level Russian handler. Initially, she's thrilled to discover photographs of five agents until she realizes that one of the faces is that of her husband, Matt. At that moment, her world begins to spin out of control.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Crime, Politics and Spectacle: Netflix's Babylon Berlin

The following review that which originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because crossing boundaries in every sphere - political,social and cultural most obviously in the criminal domain - is abundantly evident in this gorgeous and disturbing Netflix production.

 "The rise of the Nazis, and the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust, have been widely depicted in film and TV. Rarely seen is the period just before, when democracy – in the form of the idealistic, if flawed, Weimar Republic – was still fresh in Germany and the country was in the midst of a cultural, political and social revolution."
                                           – Tom Twyker, a director of Babylon Berlin.
Babylon Berlin (on Netflix) is an exhilarating, gritty sixteen-part series that is a mash-up of genres. On the most basic level, it is a propulsive police procedural and political thriller that has been adapted from the crime novel of the same name by Volker Kutscher (Picador, translated in 2016), the first in a series planned by the author culminating with the 1938 Kristallnacht. More importantly, the drama – reportedly the most expensive German television production involving three directors in every episode – is a vivid evocation of 1929 Berlin accented with film noir a few months before the crash of the American stock market. Ten years after the end of the Great War veterans still carry its scars; the war's consequences accelerate extremist politics from the left and the right threatening the rule of law and destabilizing the fragility of the Weimar Republic; pockets of poverty in the city remain with its attendant political and social ramifications, particularly for vulnerable women; and the attempt to blot out a humiliating defeat and for most Germans a shameful peace treaty explain in part its frenetic cultural, social and sexual life. Very little of the political, social and cultural tapestry of Berlin portrayed in the series is based on the novel. The series other strength is its focus on character development that enables the actors to grow into their roles and deliver strong performances.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Power Over Truth: Michael Wolff and David Frum on Trump's First Year

This review, originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because any discussion of Donald Trump will involve extensive crossing the line that according to David Frum is a threat to American democracy.

Photo by Drew Angerer.

"Again, I just wrote what I thought and what I heard. That's one thing about the book: There really aren't any politics in the book. I have no side here. I'm just interested in how people relate to one another, their ability to do their jobs and a much less abstract picture of this world than whatever the political thesis may or may not be." – Michael Wolff, Hollywood Reporter
Even before the publication of Michael Wolff's mega bestseller, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt and Company, 2018), media outlets, among them The Guardian and New York offered their own searing scoops: Trump's former strategist, Steve Bannon, claimed that the June 2016 meeting between Trump's son and Russian officials was "treasonous" and "unpatriotic"; Trump expected that he would not win the election nor did he covet it. Instead, he anticipated that he would become the most famous man in the world, a martyr to "Crooked Hillary," and that his daughter, Ivanka, harboured presidential ambitions.

Wolff, an award-winning journalist writing in such prestigious publications as New York and Vanity Fair, and the author of a biography about the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has garnered a reputation in the journalistic world that is not "bullet proof" according to Kyle Swenson of the Washington Post. Drawing upon a large array of critics who skewer Wolff as a purveyor of celebrity gossip and for being less than scrupulous with the truth – one questions his journalistic ethics for "pushing the facts as far as they'll go and sometimes farther than they can tolerate" Swenson leaves us with the impression that Wolff should be read cautiously.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Yes They Can: Naomi Alderman's The Power

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because the novel explores whether or not women, now endowed with special powers, do sometimes cross a line.



The 2017 publication of Women & Power: A Manifesto by the eminent classical scholar, Mary Beard offers a witty and caustic literary and historical overview of how women have been ridiculed, demeaned and silenced. She begins with the moment that Telemachus in The Odyssey told his mother Penelope to "shut up," go to her room and resume her own work leaving public speech to men. Eventually, Beard spotlights the moment over two millennium later when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced for quoting from a letter by Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King), while others, like Bernie Sanders, were not. Beard is a particularly apt scholar to pen this manifesto considering the inflammatory vitriol that has been hurled at her for her publicly speaking about controversial issues. Beard's manifesto could be read in conjunction with Naomi Alderman's speculative-fiction novel, The Power (Little, Brown and Company, 2017) since she speculates what would happen if men were removed from their perches of power, demeaned, violated and silenced?

The Power is couched as "A historical novel" written by Neil Adam Armon. It is framed by an exchange of letters thousands of years into the future between Neil, who pleads for patronage from an address at "The Men Writers Association" and a woman called Naomi. He explains to her that he has written a novelized history after his academic studies have been ignored. Naomi’s responses, especially in the backend, are flecked with ridicule, charged with sexual innuendos, and downright condescending. Even before we read the novel within the novel, this literary conceit signals that we are entering into a vastly changed reality: the traditional schematics of sex and power are reversed with women exercising the real power while men are the disrespected other.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

We Migrants: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large is reproduced here because the novel assessed is about crossing boundaries from a war zone to the West but without the moral connotations that this site  usually focuses upon.

Author Mohsin Hamid. (Photo: Ed Kashi)

Mohsin Hamid's most recent and timely novel Exit West (Riverdale Books, 2017) is set in a nameless, besieged country likely in the Middle East where Saeed and Nadia, the book’s protagonists ( and the only two characters named), meet in an evening class and embark on a courtship. Initially, they reside in "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." That is soon to change as their tentative, gentle relationship contrasts with their country teetering on the lip of a precipice as it disintegrates into war.

In the first half of this remarkable novel, Hamid charts their growing relationship amid the backdrop of a city spiralling out of control, requiring the young lovers to leave. Although the graphic details he provides feel authentic, Exit West is not a "realistic" novel à la Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. There is an abstract quality about the vagueness of its setting, its characters, and its narrative that Hamid renders in exquisite prose with occasionally longish, orotund sentences. He is primarily focused on highlighting the universality of societies at war with themselves and how civilians respond to the chaos closing in on them.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Delectable Samples: A 2017 Arts Roundup

This review, originally appeared in Critics at Large, and is reproduced on this site because although some of the following material is not about crossing a line, some of it is.

Robert Lepage in 887.

Since I rarely write about the arts, I welcome the opportunity to briefly comment upon what I enjoyed most this year, even though several of the pieces below have been reviewed by colleagues at Critics At Large. Apart from, perhaps, television, my sampling from the arts scene is relatively small yet I did experience some wonderful aesthetic moments. – Bob Douglas

Two theatre productions I attended this year were outstanding. Auteur Robert Lepage’s one-man bravura performance in 887 unspools the interplay between the fragmented recollections of his family life and the perils of collective Quebec memory from the 1960s to the present. 887 was the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Quebec City where Lepage spent his formative years. The staging is jaw-dropping: a revolving set showing the interior of his current apartment and the exterior of his childhood home that reveals a doll’s-house replica of that apartment complex, toy cars, puppets and hand shadows. The catalyst for these reveries occurred in 2010 when the organizers of a cultural anniversary invited Lepage to recite by heart a 1968 poem, “Speak White.” He found that he could not learn the lines until he had explored his family history, particularly his relationship with his absent father, and how the personal dynamics intersected with the larger world of nationalist politics. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

The following television review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because some of the material  does explore the consequences of crossing the line both in historical and aesthetic terms.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that covers the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.