Monday, August 31, 2015

A Death for a DilettanteA Death for a Dilettante by E.X. Giroux
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My life has been devoted to my own gratification and I've always gotten exactly what I wanted."

Winslow Maxwell Penndragon thus states his life philosophy. He is the titular dilettante of E.X. Giroux's (a pseudonym of Doris Shannon) "A Death for a Dilettante" (1987). At least he is honest about the attitude, not like those of us who try to disguise it under the cover of serving humanity: politicians and celebrities being the most striking examples.

Penndragon believes that someone has made two attempts on his life. He consults his godson, Chief Inspector Kepesake of the New Scotland Yard, who recommends turning for help to Robert Forsythe, a lawyer, and his secretary Miss Sanderson (I understand these are the recurrent characters in this alliteratively-titled series). Since quite a crowd of people reside at the Penndragon's mansion, they pose as his guests and quietly look into the murder attempts. The plot thickens when they learn from Penndragon that three of the guests are his illegitimate children whom he fathered with different women: he has managed so far to keep his paternity secret. The stereotypical, clichéd plot serves mostly as an obfuscation tool so that the readers have more difficulty in solving the case themselves. Alas, after the relatively absorbing beginning, my interest waned and conquering the second half of the book became a chore.

Well, once you read one cozy mystery, you read them all. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but the conventions of a cozy are so restrictive that I find it virtually impossible to create anything really new in the genre. The only substantial differences may lie in the writing: style, mood of the novel, and - of course - characterizations. Ms. Shannon certainly writes better than Agatha Christie, but the characters feel as paper-thin as in the lamest novels by Dame Agatha. One thing about the prose strikes me: if not for a single mention of a computer, the novel could have been written in 1947 or 1957 or 1967 rather than in 1987. Even worse, the plot could be situated in any Western country, UK or France or Holland, which is another argument that cozy mysteries are template-driven retellings of the same story without much connection to the real world, its space and time.

One and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

The King of the Rainy CountryThe King of the Rainy Country by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Je suis comme le roi d'un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux, [...]"

("I am like the king of a rainy country:
Rich - and impotent: young - and very old",
(Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal)

Another Freeling disappointment, luckily not a major one this time. "The King of the Rainy Country" (1966), the sixth entry in the celebrated Van der Valk series is quite a famous book: it won the prestigious Edgar Award for the Best Novel of 1967 from the Mystery Writers of America, probably the most important award in the mystery and crime genre. Yet - although this is a very good novel indeed - I think it is nowhere as good as several other works by the author. So let me assume that the MWA was correcting their error of having overlooked Gun Before Butter in 1963.

The novel begins with quite a bang: inspector Van del Valk is shot and almost killed on the historical battlefield of Bidassoa, close to the French-Spanish border. The rest of the book recounts the events that have led to this shooting. The owner of an important Dutch company, a multi-multi-millionaire, has suddenly disappeared without a trace and the inspector is asked by his superior to use tact and discretion in finding the missing man. The search takes Van der Valk to Köln, Innsbruck, Chamonix, a village in the Vosges (probably the same where Mr. Freeling himself settled with his family in the 1970s), and finally to Biarritz. With its interesting plot the book is unputdownable and in places it reads like a great travel guide: in particular the vivid and detailed account of skiing competition in the Alps is memorable.

This is a very well written book, with passages of delightful "freelingesque" quirky prose abound. The atmosphere of multinational Europe is captured with unparalleled mastery. Yet the author's frequent and explicit references to Charles Baudelaire's poem "Spleen" (whose first verses are quoted in the epigraph) and to the famous Mayerling incident of 1889 feel forced, and the novel does not have that genre-transcending quality that would raise it to the level of a literary masterpiece. "The King" would be a four-and-a-quarter-star novel for most other mystery writers - not for Mr. Freeling, though; he has demonstrated that he can write even better!

(By the way, notice how much the language changed in 50 years: "Jean-Claude was gay and happy," writes Mr. Freeling, and he is not referring to sexual orientation.)

Three and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Wolverine WayThe Wolverine Way by Douglas H. Chadwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's wild and there's wolverine."

A few weeks ago - while visiting the Glacier National Park in Montana - I learned some amazing facts about wolverines (the Gulo gulo species), for whom the park territory is one of the last habitats in the continental US. Intrigued by the aura of mystery surrounding these unusual animals, I grabbed Douglas H. Chadwick's "The Wolverine Way" (2010), the only available "serious" book about wolverines. I would love to read more but the choices are quite limited: despite fast approaching senility, I am still a bit too young to read children's books on wolverines, thus only the biological research literature remains, for which I do not have enough background.

The book is a report on the Glacier Wolverine Project of the early 2000s, whose aim was to investigate the behavior of this supposedly hyper-aggressive and most mysterious mammal species. Wolverines belong to the family Mustelidae, which includes species such as badgers, martens, otters, and weasels. They are reputedly the fiercest of animals: while an adult wolverine typically weighs between 25 and 50 pounds, they sometimes compete for food with grizzly bears that weigh 300 to 400 pounds, and quite a few times the little guys have been observed to win. Their physical performance and endurance are striking: for instance, a wolverine was once recorded to climb Mount Cleveland, the tallest peak in the Glacier Park, covering 4900 vertical feet in 90 minutes, in the middle of January!

The most important objective of the project, led by Dr. Copeland, was to study the wolverine population ecology. Recording the movements of individual wolverines - with the use of radio transmitters carried by the animals in collars or implants with circuitry that can track the position via GPS - allowed exploring the distribution of wolverine populations, the rates and sources of mortality, the patterns of gene flow between relatively isolated subpopulations, and in general the issues of wolverine conservation. One of the main results of the project was demonstrating that wolverines are not as exceedingly solitary as had been assumed: for instance, adult males were shown to associate at times with their female mates outside of the mating season and winter denning season.

Being an applied mathematician who sometimes deals with models of population growth, I have found one particularly interesting item: the study shows that, given the present rates and patterns of mortality, the current wolverine population size in the Glacier National Park - between 40 and 50 individuals - is a critical value. This means that if just a few individuals (perhaps even only one or two) were to be taken away, the population would fall into a steady decline, but if the mortality rate went down, the population would likely steadily grow.

The author offers several moving "personal" stories about individual wolverines, which have been assigned names that contain a letter for the gender and a number. The main characters are M1 - "The Big Daddy" of the Glacier Park group, M3 - "The King of Attitude", F4 - "The Good Mother". The stories of these animals often read as dramas or comedies.

In the last two chapters the author makes an impassioned and powerful plea for intensifying the conservation efforts so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the nature in all its glorious diversity. "The Wolverine Way" is an interesting, occasionally moving and certainly well-meaning book. My rating is not very high just because of the writing, which I find less than stellar: chaotic, repetitive, and mostly unexciting. But I still strongly recommend the book and wholeheartedly support the conservation plea!

Three stars.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Criminal ConversationCriminal Conversation by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You are accused of bringing his death about, of your own active agency, by hitherto undetermined means."

In "Criminal Conversation" (1965), the fifth novel in Nicolas Freeling's acclaimed Van der Valk series (and the twenty-sixth book of his that I have reviewed here), the author continues his experiment with having a character narrate the story, in this case a substantial part of it. Luckily, this time it is not the inspector who helps with the narration since such an attempt proved absolutely disastrous in the previous entry in the series, Double-Barrel . Here the results are encouraging and what we have is an interesting psychological crime novel.

The inspector receives a letter that accuses Dr. van der Post of "doing away with a certain Cabestan, an elderly alcoholic painter." It turns out that the author of the letter is Mr. Merckel, a merchant banker and one of the most powerful people in Holland. Van der Valk - unofficially supported by his boss, Commissaris Sampson - embarks on a quiet, private investigation. In the guise of a patient he visits the doctor, and a duel of wits ensues between the two. Their verbal fencing reveals that both are "expansive talkers", which is not a surprise, given that the author is known as an exceptional craftsman of expansive prose.

Part One is a relatively straightforward procedural, while Part Two is Dr. Post's memoir, in which he attempts to show off his top-notch intellect and unparalleled tactical skills. Taunting the inspector he even quotes a sentence that belongs to a police manual: "The characteristic, overriding, never-failing mark of the criminal, by which he can always be recognized, is his immense vanity." Vanity aside, the moving account of the doctor's coming-of-age years is a much better read than his arrogant superiority rants. The denouement will disappoint action-minded readers, but it does suit the overall pensive mood of the book.

For most other authors the novel would rank as an excellent psychological mystery, but it is just a tad below average quality for Mr. Freeling, considering his outstanding literary output.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Following StoryThe Following Story by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"We will feel the draft blowing through the cracks in the structure of causality"

Is there such a thing as an impossibly beautiful book? Probably not, but Cees Nooteboom's "The Following Story" comes awfully close. So close that when I had finished reading the novella, I immediately read it again. It might not resonate with everybody, though: past a certain age, one subject tends to preoccupy one's mind, and Mr. Nooteboom writes, beautifully, about that subject. So while a younger reader will be likely to ask "What is that all about?", those of us who are almost there, will know.

This short novella has two distinct parts: In "One" Herman Mussert, a teacher of Latin and an author of cheap travel guides, tells us how having gone to sleep in Amsterdam, he wakes up in a room in Lisbon, the same room where he had made love to a woman many, many years ago. We do not know which "he" he is, though: the "he of then" or the "he of now"? The structure of causality is drafty indeed. What is "now", by the way? Where is it where it is not here any more? And what is "I"? Am I the same I as 20 years ago?

In the dreamlike and hypnotic "Two" Mr. Mussert is on a ship traveling across the ocean, into the mouth of the Amazon river, close to the city of Belém on the Brazilian coast, and then up and up the river, past Manaus and the Rio Negro junction, surrounded by the nocturnal jungle. The ship passengers take turns to tell stories of their lives and then they quietly disappear, one by one, never to be seen again. Mr. Mussert is waiting for his turn.

The two parts, so remarkably different, need each other: the second would not make its tremendous impact without the first; the first without the second would just be a philosophical discourse on causality and passage of time. What makes this book so powerful is that its ostensibly main theme - our impermanence - is not the dominating one; "The Following Story" is also about love in its multitude of forms: love for beauty, as in poetry of Ovid, love for a student who shares the teacher's zeal in the quest for truth and knowledge, love for Socrates' courage of convictions, and - of course - Mr. Mussert's love for Mrs. Zeinstra.

The translation is extraordinary; I do not believe the prose of the original could be any more luminous and delightful. The one problem with "The Following Story" is that after reading it most other books will seem like empty tales "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Five stars.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Double-BarrelDouble-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"I was sure she was telling the truth."

For once I am enjoying an opportunity to poke fun at one of my most favorite author's work. The silly sentence quoted above comes from Nicolas Freeling's "Double-Barrel" (1964), the fourth entry in the celebrated Van der Valk series, commonly regarded as one of the best detective series in the history of the genre. Well, while Gun Before Butter and A Long Silence are indeed masterpieces of psychological crime drama, this book is a failure and for a writer of this caliber, I would call it a catastrophe. Mr. Freeling does as bad a job here as his detective who can determine whether a suspect is telling the truth just by listening to her. Depressingly naive, like the amateurish psychology in 99% of the mass-market crime novels.

Inspector Van der Valk is sent to Zwinderen, a small town in deeply provincial Holland, where two women committed suicide and one was driven to mental illness as a result of anonymous letters campaign: the letters accused them of misdeeds and threatened with consequences. Since local police have failed to uncover the letter writer, the talent from Central Recherche is needed. Indeed, our good inspector manages to clear up the case; well, as a bonus he even succeeds in solving a huge international mystery. Ha-ha, I still am unable to believe how ludicrous the second thread is!

The main problem is that in "Double-Barrel" Mr. Freeling lets Van der Valk narrate the story while the inspector does not have that much interesting to say. Most everything that I love about Freeling's books is gone: the spectacular fireworks of his idiosyncratic, digressive, and erudite prose are totally absent. The only interesting things in the novel are Mr. Besançon's character and the portrayal of the little-town atmosphere of Zwinderen: puritanical, oppressive, and full of hypocrisy. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, compare it to the atmosphere in Salem, Massachusetts, in the time of witch trials. Alas, the inspector does not have even an iota of Mr. Freeling's expressive talent.

For any other author, I would probably assign two and a half stars; after all, objectively, this is just a typical, average-quality mystery. But since it is Nicolas Freeling who produced this disaster, my rating - which I will later round down - is

One and a half stars.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Biology of the Honey Bee PaperbackBiology of the Honey Bee Paperback by Mark L. Winston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The honey bee exhibits a combination of individual traits and social cooperation which is unparalleled in the animal kingdom."

One can't live on fiction alone: reading about nature helps keep one's mind in balance. A year ago I reviewed Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees , a wonderful book about the practice of beekeeping. Dr. Mark L. Winston is one of the world's foremost experts on honey bees and his monograph "The Biology of the Honey Bee" (1987) summarizes well over a 100 years' worth of research into the Apis mellifera species. While the index contains almost 1,000 references to scientific articles and books on bees, the volume is easily accessible to nonspecialists in the field, to ordinary people curious about this fascinating animal, which provides such huge economic benefits to mankind. According to the government sources, in the United States economy "honey bees account for more than 15 billion dollars through their vital role in [crop pollination]". For me, personally, bees are important in yet another way - they are my favorite animal species.

Honey bees are in grave danger: all over the world bee populations are rapidly declining due to various factors, but mostly because of a recent phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder", characterized by "a rapid, unexpected, and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive." We need to try harder to save the bees. Pandas and dolphins are perhaps cuter, but bees are way more important!

The monograph, whose first sentence serves as an epigraph to this review, presents the evolutionary history of bees, the bee anatomy and resulting functions, the bee development cycle, the three bee castes (workers, queens, and drones), the nest architecture, the age-related activities of worker bees (there are well over twenty typical activities that bees are involved in), the collection of food, the world of bee pheromones (chemicals used for communication among members of a species), and the complicated system of mating. The two chapters that are by far the most interesting to me are dedicated to the language that bees use to communicate finding food sources and the phenomena of swarming and supersedure.

I do not think there exists a more fascinating marvel of nature than the dance language of the honey bee. Forager bees who have discovered a new source of food (nectar or pollen) come back to the hive and using several different types of dances, communicate to other bees the existence of the new source of food as well as its profitability, and provide exact directions to that source. Since the bee dance is performed in a vertical plane of the comb, and the directions need to be given in the horizontal plane of the terrain, the bees are able to translate the dance angle from the gravitational vertical into the solar angle (the azimuth of the sun when they exit the colony). Even more extraordinary is the bees' ability to compensate for the movement of sun during the day. They seem to be doing quite advanced computations!

Swarming is the way of bees (macro)reproduction. "In this type of colony division a majority of the workers and the old or the new queen leave the nest to search for a new home." Research into what exact factors cause swarming is still ongoing. Being a math person I am in awe of the fact that forager bees - when searching for a place to establish the new colony and estimating a cavity size - use a process similar to one applied in integral calculus. The precision with which bees build the hexagonal cells in the comb and the accuracy of comb spacing are stunning.

Everybody can and should read "The Biology of the Honey Bee", a serious yet easily accessible research monograph about humans' best friends in the animal world. And please help save the bees!

Four stars.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Love in AmsterdamLove in Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I don't want it particularly accurate; my whole idea was to write about Europe in a European idiom. Something that has a European flavor and inflection."

"Love in Amsterdam" (1962), Nicolas Freeling's very first novel, was retitled "Death in Amsterdam" in the U.S.; how's "Death sells better than love" for a snide remark? The fragment quoted above is uttered by Martin, the novel's protagonist, a Dutch writer of sorts, but it aptly describes Freeling's own writing. His entire opus, all about Europe, all with distinctly European flavor and inflection, has been written in a European idiom.

Martin's ex-lover, Elsa von Charmoy, is shot and he is the obvious suspect, since on the night of the murder he was seen close to the place where Elsa lived. Yet inspector Van der Valk does not quite believe that Martin is guilty, and works hard to find other suspects. His clever scheming leads to a lively finale, a bit too lively for my taste.

The novel is divided into three parts: while the first and the third are captivating psychological procedurals (with the third offering a glimpse of the Dutch judicial system, quite different from the British one), the middle part is a vivid portrayal of Elsa and almost a clinical study of Martin's infatuation with her. "[Elsa] blossomed on dramas and scenes, loved upheavals, denouncements, tremendous rages, weeping reconciliations." I feel as if I have known her forever. Had I been in literary criticism instead of applied mathematics, I would have written a paper entitled "Portrayals of Women in Nicolas Freeling's Books". Maybe when I retire...

This is Van der Valk's first appearance in one of the most famous detective series in the history of the genre. Critics often compare Freeling's work to Simenon's. True, the psychological depth and the authentic European flavor are similar in both authors' works, yet I much, much prefer Mr. Freeling for his inimitable prose, rich, convoluted, and multilingual, full of quirky digressions and virtuoso passages depicting streams of consciousness. Already in this first novel we are offered a spellbinding account of Martin's galloping thoughts, while he is in the grip of neurosis, afraid of losing his sanity.

"The man paced up and down the cell.": With this sentence, the literary career of the most erudite, literate, and idiosyncratic author of psychological crime novels began in 1962, the career that ended 40 years later, with his memoir The Village Book and the final mystery, "The Janeites".

While not a masterpiece like other Van der Valk's novels A Long Silence and particularly Gun Before Butter , "Love in Amsterdam" is a wonderful psychological drama, and a very good mystery

Four stars.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

The GetawayThe Getaway by Jim Thompson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Flight is many things."

One remembers the 1972 Hollywood movie with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw (the horrid 1994 remake is hardly worth mentioning). Sam Peckinpah's direction, tense plot, and the violent extended gunfight scene made the film into a classic that nowadays seems to be enjoying a renaissance of popularity. The film is based on Jim Thompson's "The Getaway" (1958), yet it would be hard to find a book and a movie based on it, which - except for some common elements of the plot - would be more different.

Coolheaded, intelligent, and likeable criminal, Doc McCoy, is the mastermind of a bank robbery. While the Doc and his crew flawlessly pull off the elaborate heist, not all aspects of the getaway plan work as expected and the Doc's and his wife's flight with the loot to their promised safe haven in Mexico is filled with horrors.

To me the best thing in the book is that it gives a totally unexpected answer to the question "Will Doc and his wife manage to escape justice?" The answer, neither "yes" nor "no", transcends this simplistic question. While literary and somewhat allegorical the denouement is very pleasing for its surprise factor.

Other than the ending, I have to commend the well-constructed plot. The writing is economical yet notably dated: I am currently reading a novel written only four years later, which sounds contemporary, while Mr. Thompson's prose feels like it came from the 1930s. Also, only McCoy's character is drawn with any depth: all other protagonists are pure paper. The portrayal of women in the novel may be considered demeaning. The high violence content - the novel depicts numerous killings - is to be expected and feels natural.

Two and a half stars

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Dwarf KingdomA Dwarf Kingdom by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Partir c'est mourir un peu." (To say goodbye is to die a little).

Nicolas Freeling quotes this French saying in "A Dwarf Kingdom" (1996), the sixteenth and last novel in the Castang series. Also, bidding farewell to the Commissaire and his wife in a moving Epilogue, he writes "I am sorry to say goodbye. Two good friends are here, and across the last twenty-five years." Well, a little part of my life is over too with the end of the series.

Commissaire Castang and Vera are visiting their friends' place when the party falls victims to brutal robbery that leads to murder. The trauma causes Castang to retire from his EU job, which is warmly received by his superiors as he has never been one to toe the political line. He moves to Biarritz to be close to his ex-boss, Commissaire Richard. Alas Richard is gravely ill and he soon dies leaving Vera his house, which establishes the setup for the plot that involves Castang's entire family, kidnapping, terrorists, and ends in a climactic shootout.

It is amazing how differently the author depicts the two scenes bracketing the plot - the initial robbery and the final shootout between the police and the terrorists. While the first scene is highly dramatic, believable, and deeply disturbing, the other one is so by-the-numbers and so Hollywood-style that it feels as if it were automatically produced by some bestselling-thriller-generating software. I keep wondering whether the author did it on purpose, and what that purpose might be.

Of course, as usual with Freeling, the plot is much less important than his quirky prose through which he portrays Europe and Europeans at the very end of the 20th century. I also enjoy the usual profusion of digressions, tangential remarks, and word plays in various languages, such as the quote "One cannot have a child and a gun" (how true, by the way!) or the supremely funny Jacques Derrida jibe: "Der ain't no readah. Der ain't no writah, eidah." The amusing passage about how French bad taste is different from German one is precious, albeit too long to quote.

What about the title? Freeling says through one of his characters "We've what you call the dwarfs and they have the place by the balls and make money out of everything." And later "[...] dwarfs are much too smart ever to make anything. Even if you happen to acquire something-made, then you have to spend a lot on publicity persuading imbeciles that they need to go and buy it. Money is the only real commodity." Dwarfs combine international business with municipal politics, and have support in the highest and holiest places, like the government and Opus Dei. We all live in their kingdom as pawns in their game. This is a deeply cynical book, overwhelmingly sad and mature; it is quite clear that life has thoroughly cured the 69-year old author of illusions.

My project of reading all 16 books in the series, mostly in order, has been a great adventure It does not bother me at all that I still do not know Castang and what to expect of him (I know Vera better, particularly after quite a drastic scene in this book). I am saying goodbye to them with a very heavy heart.

My rating reflects this one novel alone; the whole series, a literary phenomenon, is one of the best achievements in the history of serious mystery genre.

Three stars.

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

The World According to Mike LeighThe World According to Mike Leigh by Michael Coveney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Real people aren’t.”

I find this aphorism – coined by famous British film director Mike Leigh - the most important sentence in his biography written by Michael Coveney’s. Mr. Leigh, who is mostly known for utterly realistic portrayals of people in his movies, makes the point that to obtain absolute authenticity in a film, one has to thoughtfully, meticulously, and artfully create it. A so-called real person (a non-actor), put in front of a camera, has little chances of projecting cinematic authenticity; nothing is further from reality than "reality shows". In a movie one needs an ensemble of talented, hard-working actors to succeed in conveying truth about people, their behavior, and their interrelationships. And that’s exactly what Mr. Leigh has been doing for almost 50 years in his films and various theatrical and radio productions.

“The World According to Mike Leigh” is an early (1996) biography of the director; at the time of writing most of his best-known films had not yet been made, yet the author does an outstanding job of explaining what sets Mr. Leigh apart from other great movie directors. “Secrets and Lies”, “Happy-Go-Lucky” and "Life Is Sweet" are among the very best films I have ever watched. Hence, while this is supposed to be a review of the biography, I will instead try to convey a few points that the author makes about the director's art, thus morphing the review into "Why I Love Mike Leigh's Movies" manifesto.

Three aspects of Mr. Leigh's work seem to be the most important. First, all his movies and plays are about ordinary events in ordinary lives of ordinary people. There are no star wars, no monsters, no hobbits, no witches, no zombies, no superheroes in his fims; there is nothing there that one would not encounter in their everyday life. As the director says himself, he puts on the screen “real adventure of living and surviving from day to day, and from year to year”, and his films are "about the essence of what it is to be alive”. Timothy Spall, an actor often appearing in Mr. Leigh's movies, provides a memorable phrase: “His area is the glory of everyday nothingness which he elevates to great drama.”

Second, in his movies Mr. Leigh does not attempt to convey any messages: social, cultural, philosophical or otherwise; he says that he is not "a social proselytizer". Instead, he is interested in truth about people and wants to show how they behave, rather than how they should behave or what the viewers should think about their behavior. For instance, in "Secrets and Lies" - to me one of the greatest movies ever made, winner of 1996 Palme d'Or in Cannes - we meet a black daughter of a white mother. In most other directors' hands the film could become just a vehicle carrying messages about racial issues or veer into cheap sentimentality. Nothing like that here - the film offers real human drama and real human joy.

Finally, the actors. The author writes that Mr. Leigh "does not work with stars. He tends, rather to help create them." He works differently than all other directors. Before the movie is made, he does not know the story in any detail, and there is no scenario. Here's what Mr. Coveney writes about the director's method: “He will work one-on-one, initially, with each actor, developing a character […] Each actor […] will not be apprised of any knowledge of the other characters beyond what he or she would know of them as that character at that particular point of the story. The story will be developed chronologically. The characters will meet each other only in situations of Leigh's devising […]”

As good as Mr. Coveney's work is - and here I am unable to avoid comparisons with the utterly horrid biography of Diana Rigg that I have recently suffered through - it is not perfect: the accumulation of minute details about virtually every single work of Mr. Leigh overwhelms the reader. I would love to learn more about how Mr. Leigh's method affects his actors when they work with "conventional" directors. I also find Mr. Coveney's logic suspect in the fragment when he argues about certain cinematic aspects of the pivotal mother-daughter scene in "Secrets and Lies". Hence, I can rate this otherwise wonderful biography with only

Four stars.

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