52 weeks – 11 November, 2012

Book

The World, by Bill Gaston: a fine novel by a local writer (Bill Gaston teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria). At the beginning of the book, Stuart Price, a recent early retiree from teaching, sees his house burn down and then discovers that he has allowed his insurance to lapse.

Stymied by an unyielding bureaucracy and close to penniless, Stuart drives from BC to Ontario to visit an old friend, Melody. This first section is told from Stuart’s point of view. Stuart is not an exciting person and I couldn’t empathize with his plight, so this part to me was boring.

Things look up in the second section, narrated by Melody. She has terminal cancer and a father with Alzheimer’s, so you might think that she doesn’t need the hapless Stuart landing on her doorstep. But she has made her peace with her situation and is in control. She is making the most of her last months. Melody and Stuart go to visit Hal, her father, in the care home he has recently moved to and they read to him and to a couple of his companions. In a surreal scene, they go to a good Korean restaurant, where Melody ingests various things through the feeding tube in her abdomen while Hal cooks pieces of food over and over on their table grill.

They loaded up the grill with this and that, Hal pitching in, his chopsticks second nature. Sometimes he flipped meat before its time, and Mel simply let him forget and then she flipped it back. They used the timer for the sardines and shark, though she thought this needless and a little gimmicky, because you could just tell. Though you could get drunk and distracted. Maybe you talked about your marriage while the sardine dried and blackened. Hal kept asking whose meat was whose, and several times he removed something from the grill, dipped it in something then put it back, but no harm done. Soon the two men were eating, the thinly cut food only taking a few minutes. Sometimes Hal was shown what sauce to use with what, sometimes not. Twice, Mel tried a chew-and-spit. Otherwise, she was happy to dip a finger and touch it to her tongue. There was nothing earth-moving about any of it, no sauce broke new ground. The deep-fried kimchi was still the best.

Except for the wine, which was half gone. Her abdomen had gone instantly and gloriously warm. Two little half-full teapots, and it was time for a third. Stuart had been too busy grilling to notice her first two, and now he looked a little panicked to see her hunch into the table, hoist her blouse, and uncap what they’d both begun jokingly calling her “adapter.” She was discreet, but not that discreet. Four tables were occupied now and she knew that at least one had noticed her.

The third section, and the most interesting to me, is told from the point of view of Hal. After an academic career as an historian followed by twenty years as a Buddhist monk, Hal now lives in a home where he thinks the care aides are Tibetans. His narration is a reflection of the patchy state of his memory. This works surprisingly well. The poignancy of his situation is held at bay by the matter-of-fact writing.

In the second and third sections, we hear excerpts from the book The World, written by a younger Hal. In this book, Michael Bodleian, a history professor, discovers a box of old letters written in Chinese on the site that was formerly a leper colony. Bodleian hires Naomi, a translator, and falls in love with her as she translates the letters. The story of Hal’s The World overlaps and intersects with the stories of Stuart and Melody and Hal in the present day.

Hal’s book seems to be at least partly autobiographical. This section is many-layered: the story of Li and Sang Seen in the leper colony — written by Hal, who may be Michael Bodleian — is translated for Michael by Naomi, and the story of Michael and Naomi is read to Hal by Melody and Stuart. Worlds within worlds.

Food

The lemon tart at Faubourg, the French bakery cafe in Kerrisdale. This tart is a light as air inverted version of a lemon meringue pie. The perfect crust has a layer of meringue inside and a dome of tart, creamy, lemon custard on top garnished with a chocolate label and a ring of sugar crystals.

Movie

Doubt, the movie, is adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s stage play, Doubt: A Parable.

I thought Doubt, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hofmann, and Amy Adams, a brilliant film. Hofmann completely inhabits the role of Father Flynn, a charismatic priest associated with a school in the Bronx. Everything about him: his attitude, his sermons, his neatly groomed hair and the priestly robes that suit him so well, make him utterly believable. He is all the priests of my childhood: fatherly, kind, wise, a little worldly, sure of himself; he has a sense of humour, a natural dignity.

As Sister Aloysius, Meryl Streep is a strict, old-fashioned disciplinarian who watches everyone closely for signs of sinful behaviour. This part is close to a caricature and I would have preferred a more muted character. But we do get to know her better during the later parts of the film. Amy Adams is a young nun, Sister James, who is dedicated to her students and believes the best of everyone.

At the beginning of the movie, Father Flynn preaches a sermon on doubt. This alerts Sister Aloysius to the possibility of his own doubt and she warns Sister James to watch him for anything suspicious. Sister James reports that Donald Miller, the school’s sole black student, was called away in the middle of class by Father Flynn and seemed strange when he returned. When pressed, she further reports that Donald’s breath smelled of alcohol that day.

The attempt to unravel the truth behind these events is at the core of the story. We are initially led to dismiss Sister Aloysius’ suspicions as the poison of her bitter, suspicious nature. But then — just a hint of doubt remains. Of course, that is what Father Flynn warns about when he preaches against gossip. You can’t get it back once it is out.

It is the great strength of this film that we never know exactly what happened. Viola Davis, in a great cameo performance as Donald’s mother, adds a further dimension. The truth, whatever it may be, is complicated.

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