Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelop – or at least threatens – the tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Meditations on Love and Death: L'Enfer (2005), Autumn in New York (2000) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)

Karin Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Béart in L'Enfer

Danis Tanović's Oscar-winning debut, No Man's Land (2001), drew most of its intrigue from the comic dilemma of two men – a Bosnian and a Serb – reluctantly sharing a trench in a time of war. L'Enfer (2005) is a densely absorbing thriller where three women reluctantly share a spiritual trench in a completely different kind of war. Based on Krysztof Piesiewicz's screenplay, which was originally conceived for the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and loosely inspired by the second part of Dante's Inferno, L'Enfer is about the kind of erotic unhappiness that burns. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) is a married woman who comes to believe that her photographer husband is having an affair with one of his clients. Anne (Marie Gillain) is a young student who is obsessed with one of her professors, a married man who has just split up with his wife. Celine (Karin Viard) is a spinster caring for her invalid mother who begins receiving strange advances made to her by a young man (Guillaume Canet) she meets in a bar.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Transforming Tradition: Bill Clifton's Red Shadows

One of the best parts about listening to music is discovering something new and finding out it was created a generation ago. So it is for Toronto-born pianist, composer and arranger, Bill Clifton. Clifton is not a household name or even a recognized name in the mainstream jazz, but his story and his life in music is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, thanks to his second cousin, Michael.

Bill Clifton was born in Toronto in 1917. He grew up in house filled with music entering the Royal Conservatory to study piano at age seven. In high school he was exposed to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, early bandleaders looking to advance jazz in clever arrangements that were accessible to a wide audience. Those big band sounds that went beyond the commercial pop songs of the day inspired Clifton to focus on jazz piano and the study of harmony. By 1939 he got a job with one of the pre-eminent bands of the day, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Years earlier, Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” for piano and orchestra, so this was definitely a great start to a career in music. Once established in New York City, Clifton became the session player for Whiteman but also put in quality time with Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and others, including radio work with Bing Crosby at CBS. He also played piano at NBC radio as part of the house band, so times were pretty good well into the 1940s.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleuths: Peter Robinson's Abattoir Blues, John Sandford's Deadline and Deborah Crombie's To Dwell In Darkness

One of the things I like best about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire-based series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is its terrific ensemble cast, especially the ambitious and troubled DI Annie Cabbot (Banks’s on-again, off-again lover) and tall, beautiful Jamaican immigrant DS Winsome Jackman. Even such relatively minor regular characters as DCs Dougal Wilson and Gerry Masterson, Area Commander Catherine Gervaise, and London DCS Richard (Dirty Dick) Burgess – not to mention the various bad guys, witnesses and victims – are well drawn and utterly believable. As Abattoir Blues opens, army veteran Terry Gilchrist’s dog apparently discovers a large bloodstain – and what appears to be brain matter – in the hangar of a long-abandoned airfield. Meanwhile, Cabbot and Wilson are investigating the case of a stolen tractor, which Cabbot maintains is no job for the Homicide and Major Crimes unit. But as Wilson points out, the new police commissioner thinks rural crime is major. Also, it is a very expensive tractor. As those two get on with their investigation, Jackman heads for the hangar to check out the bloodstain. Cabbot and Wilson end up seeking two young men who may be connected to the tractor-theft, and who are now missing. Jackman and Banks’s inquiries soon cross paths with Cabbot and Wilson’s, especially when a horrible truck accident during a sudden snowstorm produces a particularly grisly discovery. The investigation takes Banks and his team all over the countryside, but also into the worlds of high finance, hobby farming, meat rendering, smuggling, property development and, as unlikely as it sounds, spelunking. And while all that is going on, we see some serious interest developing between Winsome and former soldier Gilchrist. Keep an eye on them in future novels.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Such Thing As Stupid Questions: What If? by Randall Munroe

“Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.”
– Disclaimer, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What if everyone on earth jumped up and down at exactly the same time? No, seriously – what would really happen? What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at nearly the speed of light? What if you tried to build a periodic table of the elements out of the actual elements comprising it? I don’t know. Of course I don’t know. But I know who you can ask.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and now full-time self-employed internet cartoonist, spends a great deal of time putting his well-honed scientific mind to work on the What If blog section of his wildly popular site,, where users submit strange hypothetical questions that he does his best to answer as scientifically as possible. Munroe has kept this blog active for so long that he has now collected enough material to fill a book – one that proves both insightful and hilarious to read.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Old Man and the Old Moon: Small-Time Charmer

Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen in The PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Old Man and the Old Moon

The PigPen Theatre Co. has been touring around its musical fairy tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon; I missed it at Williamstown last summer but caught up with it in the ArtsEmerson series in Boston. PigPen consists of seven men who got together as freshmen drama students at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, which makes them around twenty-five. And indeed the spirit of the piece, which they devised in collaboration with their director, Stuart Carden, is undergraduate in the best sense: it feels freshly minted, and it’s devoid of even the smallest taint of cynicism or smugness.

The narrative is a shaggy-dog fable about how the phases of the moon evolved. An old man (Ryan Melia) is tasked with filling up the moon every night with liquid light. Then one day his wife (Alex Falberg), stirred by a familiar piece of music she hears on the wind, sails off to follow it, and the old man, distraught, abandons his post to try to find her. He has a series of adventures on the way:  he gets a ride on a war ship and replaces its captain when he’s killed in battle, he gets swallowed up by an enormous fish, and so on. Meanwhile the moon wanes and finally fades out entirely; the nighttime sky is sunk in darkness, there’s nothing to control the tides, and chaos ensues.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Very Human Princess: Louise J. Wilkinson's Eleanor de Montfort

My first entrée to the adult section of the public library where I grew up was Queen Elizabeth I. I don't remember how I first encountered Good Queen Bess – doubtless it was some reference in another book, probably a novel. But when I grew frustrated with the books available in the children's section (a brightly lit annex attached to the main building full of primary colors), most of which featured cartoon illustrations of the Spanish Armada, the kindly library suggested (somewhat doubtfully) that I should check the grown-up books. I still remember climbing the staircase that connected the children's annex with the main library – I had to climb the carpeted steps, past the posters for Laura Bush's literacy campaign, to get to the marble and wood chamber of treasures. The big-people librarian wouldn't give me an adult card (I was ten or eleven, and the circulation desk came up to my nose) but my mother arranged for me to have access on my children's card. It was a small library – to get to the non-fiction and history you went up a circular staircase to a balcony with carved wood railings that circled the entire room. I still remember where the Elizabeth books were – right across from the entrance, on a top shelf that I needed a footstool to reach. And there I plopped my small self to read about Elizabeth, her tragic mother Anne Boleyn, her insane sister Mary and the treacheries of her cousin, Jane Gray.

Eventually I burned out on the Tudors, and somehow – probably at the suggestion of the librarians, bless their souls – I moved on to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth I is an easy hero for a young girl. After all, she was a Queen in her own right! Eleanor of Aquitaine was slightly more complicated. She also exercised power in her own right, but often had to use the sort of 'soft power' available to women in the medieval period. I still love both Elizabeth and Eleanor, but I have learned in the intervening twenty years how unusual they both were. Most women in the pre-Modern period didn't wield great international influence, or even much autonomous domestic influence. But that doesn't mean that they were not important and influential in both international and domestic spheres. As Louise J. Wilkinson demonstrates in Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (2012) powerful women abound. But unlike Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it takes dedication to learn about these influential, flawed, and fascinating women  of the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case for Eleanor de Montfort, granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and an absolutely spectacular character in her own right.