Five-and-a-Half Stars!

NTLive_AStreetcardNamedDesire_DigitalA5LandscapeI was completely blown away last night at the National Theatre Live presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire, performed at London’s Young Vic Theatre, with Gillian Anderson playing the lead role of Blanche DuBois. Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski and Vanessa Kirby as Stella were also standouts, but Gillian Anderson was so completely imbued with the character, she was actually physically transformed to the point of being unrecognisable until the very end during the standing ovation. The role of the self-deluded, blind-drunk, neurotic, loud, talkative aging beauty seemed to suit her to a T, and you had a sense she must have practiced it all her life, either that or she was showing us her true personality (somehow unlikely), so totally convincing was she. Every time she downed a mouthful of “alcohol” and careened along, you fully believed it and felt the booze was coursing through her veins, and the intensity of her performance, down to the funny-yet-heartbreaking little broken giggle she let out after every utterance didn’t let up for a moment. It was truly an electrifying performance. I don’t know if it helps that I never did manage to sit through the movie version with the oh-so-beautiful Marlon Brando when I was younger, making the material seem that much fresher to me. You could have cut the tension between Stanley and Blanche with a knife and I hated Ben Foster with all my might, believing him to really be Stanley, so fully was I invested in the play. The whole cast was outstanding, and director Benedict Andrews made this now nearly 70-year old Tennessee Williams play feel absolutely fresh and timeless. I’m even considering going to see the encore performance. Nothing light and easy about it, more blow your socks off, tear you heart out, but oh my, what powerful entertainment! And what a role of a lifetime for 46-year-old Gillian Anderson, who certainly seized the opportunity to leave her mark on an unforgettable Blanche performance. Five-and-a-half stars! ★★★★★½

Sunday, September 21, 2014


The Unsolved Mystery of Lord Lucan

0385720904.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ★★★⅓
Edition: Anchor (2002), Paperback, 176 pages
Original publication date: 2000

I’ve grown very fond of the Muriel Spark who wrote (among many others) Loitering with Intent, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington, which are among my favourite novels, and while I was expecting to be highly diverted by Aiding and Abetting, it was another of those instances where high expectations are probably to blame for my relative lack of appreciation. The story is based on a true crime committed by “Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (born 18 December 1934), popularly known as Lord Lucan, a British peer and suspected murderer, disappeared without trace early on 8 November 1974”. Now that I’m reading the wikipedia entry about the man, it occurs to me I might have enjoyed Spark’s novel more had I had the full details as revealed there, along with that photo of a beautiful man—who indeed would have been a very good James Bond candidate—in mind. Lucan was a gambler, and his marriage to his gorgeous wife Veronica Duncan collapsed in 1972; a bitter custody battle over their three children ensued, and it seems Lucan developed an obsession over his ex-wife and somehow determined that doing away with her would be the solution to all his problems, financial and otherwise. The attempted murder was horribly botched. While reportedly waiting for his wife to come down the darkened basement stairs of their former mutual home, the inquest revealed that he probably mistook their nanny Sandra Rivett for Veronica, bludgeoned her to death, and then realizing his mistake, viciously attacked his wife when she showed up thereafter; Duncan was treated in hospital for serious head injuries and survived the ordeal, but Lucan disappeared and was never apprehended for his crimes. Lucan’s fate has remained a high-profile mystery for the British public. Many reports of sightings of Lucan in various countries around the world have been made, though none were substantiated, and despite an ongoing police investigation and continued press coverage, Lucan has continued to evade discovery.

To make the story her own, Spark bases her theories on the fact that many friends and family members of Lucan came to his defence during the investigation, no doubt largely owing to his position in society as a British peer (i.e. member of British nobility). The story is a contemporary one, in which Lucan and another man who also claims to be Lucan, but calls himself Mr Walker, both become patients of a famous psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, at her Paris office. What we are led to understand is that a now elderly Lucan has evaded the authorities by having facial reconstruction and thanks to his supporters, has been traveling around the world with the aid of funds provided by his wealthy friends. But now Lucan and Walker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the former, are believed to be working together, and having come on hard times, are bent on blackmailing Dr Wolf, having discovered a secret past and identity she also needs to keep hidden.

Lord Lucan with wife Veronica Duncan, 1963

Lord Lucan with wife Veronica Duncan, 1963

The premise is certainly fascinating, and this should have worked for me, but somehow it failed to do so. I didn’t find the bitter humour I so enjoyed in the Spark novels I’ve listed above, and I failed to feel any real interest for any of the protagonists or their fates. But then again, I knew little to nothing about the affair or the real human beings behind the story until I read the book. The real-life story seemed far-fetched enough to make for perfectly good fiction, so it seemed to me all the additional intrigue was unnecessary. That being said, far be it from me to want to discourage anyone from deciding for themselves whether this is a novel worthy of attention or not. I may reread it someday, along with other Muriel Spark works I want to revisit, and then again, I may not. But if anything, Lucan’s story is an intriguing one and is certainly worthy of speculation.

eta: Here’s a related article from the Mirror I just found: The truth must finally be told: Why Lord Lucan’s son is finally speaking out after 38 years

True Crime, Great Yarn

2b1f3d71ed2ad15596e54356951444341587343Frog Music by Emma Donoghue ★★★★⅓
Edition: Hachette Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 12h47
Original publication date: March 2014

I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she’d based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: “On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed”, she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and wore men’s clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by “miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes” are Donoghue’s main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.

The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and ‘michetons’, the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning nor condemning prostitution, raises question about how it affects women’s lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the ‘Bourgeois’ but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to “Angel Makers”, a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children are likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit’s living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother’s love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.

I read Donoghue’s Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven’t had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical fiction novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.

I’ve listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I’ve heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam’s credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.

Hot Off the Press (so to speak)

I just received the following information from the Folio Society by email:

The Folio Prize shortlist

This morning at the British Library, the judges of the 2014 Folio Prize, headed by Chair Lavinia Greenlaw, announced the eight titles on the much-anticipated inaugural shortlist. As sponsors of The Folio Prize, we wanted to ensure that our members would be among the first to discover this stellar list of new writing. The Folio Prize aims to recognise and celebrate the best English-language fiction published in the UK in a given year, regardless of form, genre or the author’s country of origin. The winner of the very first Folio Prize – worth £40,000 – will be announced at a ceremony taking place on Monday 10 March in London.

The eight books in contention are:

Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Random House / Jonathan Cape)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
Benediction by Kent Harouf (Picador)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Random House/ Harvill Secker)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)

At The Folio Society we are passionate champions of great literature. In sponsoring The Folio Prize, our hope was that we could continue this tradition of excellence and uncover the best fiction of our time, books that will be read and admired for decades to come. This outstanding shortlist, which consists of five US or US-based writers, one British, one Canadian and one Irish, confirms our expectations.

You can watch a video here which explains the concept behind The Folio Prize and our reasons for sponsoring it, and presents the shortlisted authors.

On a personal note, I have not read any of the above yet, though I have recently read and very much enjoyed the first book in Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, of which Last Friends is the third book (and have seen nothing but great comments about her other two books). I also have Tenth of December cued on the MP3 player, so will probably give that a listen very soon.

Legends Never Truly Die Away


Peter O’Toole, the lead character in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, a role which led him to be considered one of his generation’s most respected actors, passed away yesterday at 81. I tried watching this epic movie in my youth, but a four-hour movie about skirmishes in the Arab desert somehow failed to capture my addled teenage brain back then, even if blonde blue-eyed, six-footer O’Toole was quite the dish in his prime.

I recently acquired a beautiful Folio Society edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence—the original Lawrence of Arabia—who wrote about his involvement in the Arab Revolt on which the film was based. What sold me on it wasn’t so much the blurb on the Folio site as much as this description of a paperback edition:

This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s command of the language, an adventurer’s heart, a soldier’s great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.

Earlier this week I got a great deal on the audio edition of the recently published Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, of which Janet Maslin writing for The New York Times says: ‘For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells.‘ So now it seems I’ve got my work cut out for me: read T. E. Lawrence’s book, then listen to Anderson’s, after which I should be well prepared to fully appreciate the movie version.

DIY Book Sculpture

The above, seen today on Flavorpill, seems like a most creative (if impractical) kind of solution for dealing with all those piles of books you find spilling over from the always too limited shelf-space. On their original post, you’ll find 14 other (also mostly impractical) Inspiring, Cleverly-Organized Stacks of Books.

Which is your favourite? Do you have other ideas to suggest, or better yet, show us?


“Vandals chastised, flea on foot”

For the third night in a row, the helicopters are circling the night skies. This may be completely normal in a city like New York or Los Angeles, but unusual enough here in Montreal to seem really strange and completely disruptive. Like most every year, the students have been boycotting classes to oppose tuition hikes, and to keep things interesting, they’ve taken to protesting in the downtown streets—at night. There’s some live reporting streaming on the Montreal Gazette website, with lots of blurry night photos and captions that are obviously dashed off from mobile phones, which makes for some pretty amusing stuff sometimes, as evidenced with the latest stream which says: “Let’s stay peaceful says crowd. Vandals chastised, flea on foot”.

These protests are apparently fuelled by the latest offer by the Charest government, which they deem unacceptable. One of their chants is “It’s not an offer, it’s an insult”.

From the live stream:

“Police declared march illegal.”

“Chant: An illegal march, that doesn’t exist.”

“Unclear what has become of masked vandal but police are making presence known ”

But what has become of the flea?

"Riot cops moving in at bleury ste cath"

The riot cops are on the scene, and this is where I tune out. And that’s been the news tonight, from the comfort of my living room.