52 weeks – 23 June, 2013

Book

The Testament of Mary - coverRead The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín. The concept is compelling: in her old age, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hounded by two groups of people—some, including the Romans and the Elders, who want her silenced in case she contributes to the growing legends about her son and some, her keepers who are writing the Gospels, who want her to tell stories about her son’s divinity.

Mary isn’t willing to be pushed either way.  She thinks all the son-of-God chatter is nonsense. In her view, her son’s disciples were a group of losers:

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said …  My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.

Mary relates in a puzzled, angry way the various events that led to people’s believing that her son was the son of God. In her view, things got twisted, embroidered, exaggerated. She doesn’t understand how some of the supposed miracles came to happen and she often just sounds exhausted.

Towards the end of the book, Mary talks about the crucifixion. Related by a mother, it could hardly not be a harrowing story but in addition Tóibín seems to catch the very nature of evil through the quiet words of the witness.

AUDIO BOOK

Our Kind of Traitor - coverListened to Our Kind of Traitor on audio. It was very well read by Robin Sachs who, sadly, died earlier this year. (Having now listened to a few dozen audio books, I’ve become aware of how important it is to have a good voice to narrate the books: minimal accent, clear and crisp narration, no oddities of pronunciation. Robin Sachs was one of the best.)

As John Le Carré is one of the best of his kind. As an author of novels of intrigue, I don’t think he has an equal. His early spy novels were classics of their era; in recent years his work has had to be updated to reflect the changing world, but he retains an unparalleled ability to reflect the moral complexity around us.

In Our Kind of Traitor, two young English people on holiday in Antigua meet up with with Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, known as Dima. A hearty, overwhelming bear of a man, Dima worms his way into a sort of friendship with Perry and Gail while playing tennis with Perry and pressing hospitality on them both. He then asks them to help him get in touch with the English secret service to facilitate his move to London with his family in exchange for the rich variety of information he has amassed in his time as “Russia’s number one money launderer.”

The book takes its time setting up the background and fleshing out the characters. Perry and Gail are the least interesting, although we get to hear a lot about their lives. More nuanced are the characters of Hector Meredith and Luke Weaver, the intelligence officers who work on the case. There is a sense of growing menace and despair at the uphill work they have to do to put together a plan. The conflicting loyalties and dubious morality of the grey, faceless men that Hector has to work with are all too convincingly portrayed. You watch as greed for political power or influence or money create a climate where the unthinkable becomes banal reality. You know it is not going to end well but you’re unable to look away.

TV SERIES

BroadchurchBroadchurch, an eight-episode BBC TV series starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller. This series, set in a village on the Dorset coast, is the compelling story of a child’s murder and the subsequent investigation that involves and damages the whole community.  Ellie Miller is the heart of the series, having a person-next-door quality that makes her character utterly believable. She is deeply affected by the murder as she is a close friend of Beth and Mark Latimer, whose son Danny has been killed. Ellie believes that her son Tom is the victim’s best friend, although it later becomes clear that their relationship is much more complex than that.

As with all the best murder mysteries, everyone in the community has something to hide. Their prevarications and suspicious behaviour may hold important clues—or may just lead to dead ends.  Ellie is annoyed that DI Hardy has been brought in to lead the investigation since she believes the job was promised to her. Compounding her annoyance, Hardy obviously has personal problems that are having an impact on his ability to do the job. For his part, Hardy is annoyed that Miller can’t set her personal feelings aside.

The identity of the murderer only becomes obvious close to the end of the series. As the truth sinks in in the final episode, the actors have some harrowing scenes that ring true. And the murderer has a motive that is not easily classified—there is an ambiguity about it. The series is an impressive achievement.

Postscript: Since US television cannot leave well enough alone, Fox will be developing an American version of Broadchurch, to air in 2014-15.

Food

Heirloom tomato tartHeirloom tomato tart at Provence Restaurant in Point Grey, Vancouver. Eating on the patio, shielded from the street by hanging baskets. A perfect summer evening!

52 weeks – 25 May, 2013

Book

Ground-BeneathThe Ground Beneath her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. I listened to it on CD. I wanted to like this novel, and I remained interested through the early parts set in Bombay—but in the end I thought it was too self-indulgent and uncontrolled to be successful.

It’s a long saga of a book and therefore many, many CDs. About six disks before the end, I was seriously flagging but I decided, having got that far, to finish it. But over the last few disks I found myself many times shouting at the CD player, “That’s it! That’s an ending! No more!” But, no: on and on the story went, Rushdie seemingly unable to finish it.

Based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara is a sort of love story. It’s set against the world of rock music from the fifties to the nineties. Rock musicians and their music are referenced constantly through the story—some with their real names, some with composite names that sound like a person or a song you ought to know. The story is narrated by Rai, their friend and a rival for Vina’s love.

One of the many twists on reality is that Ormus makes rock music before anyone else:

And music, popular music, was the key that unlocked the door for them, the key to magic lands.

In India it’s often said that the music I’m talking about is precisely one of those viruses with which the almighty West has infected the East, one of the great weapons of cultural imperialism, against which all right-minded persons must fight and fight again. Why then offer up paeans to cultural traitors like Ormus Cama, who betrayed his roots and spent his pathetic lifetime pouring the trash of America into our children’s ears? Why raise low culture so high, and glorify what is base? Why defend impurity, that vice, as if it were a virtue?

This is what Ormus and Vina always claimed, never wavering for a moment: that the genius of Ormus Cama did not emerge in response to, or in imitation of, America; that his early music, the music he heard in his head during his unsinging childhood years, was not of the West, except in the sense that the West was in Bombay from the beginning, impure old Bombay where West, East, North and South had always been scrambled, like codes, like eggs, and so Westernness was a legitimate part of Ormus, a Bombay part, inseparable from the rest of him.

It was an amazing proposition: that the music came to Ormus before it ever visited the Sun Records studio or the Brill building or the Cavern Club. That he was the one who heard it first. Rock music, the music of the city, of the present, which crossed all frontiers, which belonged equally to everyone—but to my generation most of all because it was born when we were children, it spent its adolescence in our teenage years, it became adult when we did, growing paunchy and bald right along with us: this was the music that was first revealed to a Parsi Indian boy named Ormus Cama who heard all the songs in advance, two years, eight months and twenty-eight days before anyone else.

How could such a thing happen?

It’s an appealing idea and of course you can get swept up in the hypnotic magic of Rushdie’s way with words. The problem with this book for me is that I eventually got tired of the magic realism, alternative reality, in-love-with-language style because there seemed no end to it. Here is a paragraph in which the essential meaning is almost lost by the many parenthetical embroideries:

We must wait a little longer for the answer, until Ormus Cama has returned home from the record store, stunned by joy (because of his meeting with that under-age nymphet, Vina Apsara) and horror (because of his discovery of the “theft” of his secret music by Jesse Parker, Jack Haley’s Meteors, and sundry other quiffed and finger-snapping Yanks). The answer cannot be given until Ormus has first encountered his inquisitive matchmaker of a mother, who is anxious to know how things went with “dear Persis, such an able girl, with so many good qualities, so dutiful, so well-educated, such good marks in her Matric and Senior Cambridge, and quite pretty in a way, don’t you think so, Ormus dear,” to which perfunctory encomium he makes no reply other than a shrug. Then he must lounge lazily through the dining room, past the decrepit old domestic servant pretending to polish the silver candelabrum on the sideboard, Gieve, the kleptomaniac head bearer, whom his father took on from the departed William Methwold, and who now bears the title of “butler,” thanks to Sir Darius’s fondness for Lord Emsworth’s immortal Beach, and who has been very, very slowly stealing the family silver for years…

Yes, it’s a delicious wallow and yes, it’s entertaining—and for a while that is enough.

Rock lyrics occur many times, but they lose power without their musical accompaniment and in their unadorned state they are sometimes so banal that they serve to undermine the power of the story rather than accentuate it.

I believe that Rushdie would have been better served by his publisher if he had been assigned a more ruthless editor. His rich facility with language, plays on words, literary references, poetic ramblings, philosophical lectures, history lessons—both real and fictional—are wonderful in moderate doses, but they need to be reigned in. The embroideries on and tangential outgrowths of the central plot should be minimized. The complexities of the characters—oops, I’m doing it myself. I’ll stop now.

TV series

The NewsroomThe Newsroom, by Ken Finkleman. This Canadian TV series was originally  broadcast on CBC. There are three seasons and a two hour TV movie. So far, I’ve watched seasons 1 and 2.

It’s a darkly funny series, with the main character George Findlay (Ken Finkleman) and the anchor Jim Walcott (Peter Keleghan) demonstrating varying degrees of incompetence. George is self-obsessed, duplicitous and cunning. Jim is completely unaware of what is going on in the world but he presents a slick, smiling front for the news program.

Karen (played by Karen Hines) is the voice of wisdom, good taste and integrity, though she manages to inject some wonderful deadpan comedy into her scenes with George.

George’s sidekicks, different people in season 1 and season 2, are an ongoing support group who listen to his often outlandish ideas with only a slight widening of the eyes or a hesitant repetition of the main points to reflect the sane person’s response to George’s views. My current favourite is Matt (Matt Watts). His eyes flicker behind his glasses as he appears to process George’s latest and decide how to respond to it.

At the end of season 2, there are four episodes done documentary style. These bear a strong resemblance to The Office, the hilarious original British version created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

I haven’t yet watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the US newsroom drama series that premiered in 2012. It sounds as though it leans more to drama than comedy, though it might be an interesting contrast in styles.

Food

BottlesEarly evening light coming through the wine bottles stored and displayed at Arms Reach Bistro in Deep Cove.

52 weeks – 12 May, 2013

Book

A Widow for One Year-coverA Widow for One Year, by John Irving. I listened to it on CD while driving. A huge book in print, it translated to 20 CDs. That’s a lot of car trips. Although I got impatient with Irving’s repetitiveness at times, overall it was a great experience in which to immerse myself.  His characters are quirky enough to be real and the situations they get into are labyrinthine but always entertaining. His books are lengthy, rambling sagas with all kinds of sideways diversions and embellishments.

Ruth Cole, the daughter of Ted and Marion Cole, was conceived as a replacement for the two brothers she never knew, who were killed in a car accident years before she was born. Marion never gets over the loss of her two sons and is unable to get close to her young daughter.

Ted Cole is a writer of rather scary children’s books: even the title of The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls makes me think of children’s nightmares. Even worse, The Sound of Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound has a mole “twice the size of a child, but half the size of most adults. This mole walked upright, like a man, and so he was called the moleman. He wore baggy pants, which hid his tail, and old tennis shoes that helped him to be quick and quiet.” And this mole likes to take little girls back to his lair.

Ted is also a tireless womanizer. He hires the teenage Eddie O’Hare as an assistant during the summer that Ruth is four. We are told that Ted hopes Eddie will be more than an assistant to Marion; in fact, he hopes that Eddie will make up for his neglect of her.

Marion initially views Eddie like another son, but eventually they become lovers. The days and weeks during which this situation develops has a dreamlike quality: the feeling of the endless summers of childhood.

Irving’s winding, convoluted sentences add to that feeling of being on a summer vacation.  You can relax into this book and take time to understand the nuances of each situation. His paragraphs tend to be repetitive, meandering, referring back to earlier times, foreshadowing events later in the novel, and making quite sure the reader understands all the details and subleties:

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any “presence” she detected in either her mother or her father—and that, after her mother had abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer—for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photos had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memories, she was forced to imagine them.

It can be quite hypnotic, especially when you’re listening to it as an audio book.

My main caveat is that sometimes all the detail, the repeated words and reminders of past events combine to give me the feeling that there will be a test later and I will have to remember everything—but I ended up adapting to and accepting the style. Overall, it’s a very satisfying book.

TV Series

Wendell Pierce in TremeTreme is a television series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who previously collaborated on The Wire. It is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It follows the lives of residents of the Treme neighbourhood as they try to rebuild their homes. Some are trying to find out what happened to relatives who have disappeared; some are trying to obtain assistance to rebuild. But along with the suffering goes an appetite for life—for good food, for parades and parties, and of course for music.

Music is huge in Treme, with lots of traditional and newer music in every episode. Wendell Pierce, who played a cop in The Wire, is Antoine Batiste, a trombonist who lives with his second wife (although he still has a roving eye). Every episode has scenes of second-line parades or street musicians or people dancing along with the music in bars (sometimes all three).  Many real-life musicians play cameos. Sometimes Treme indulges them a little too much, introducing them by name with excessive amounts of awe. Sometimes, dare I say it, there is too much music in an episode to the detriment of the story arc.

Police corruption is a major theme. Melissa Leo, as lawyer Toni Bernette, struggles to work with the better cops and expose others. Given the general atmosphere, you aren’t sure that even the good cops are entirely pure.

But the heart of Treme is about the community’s love of New Orleans. The residents go through painful struggles trying to rebuild their lives. They have to deal with loss, with bureaucracy and with those out to turn a quick profit, but still they love the place and its traditions.

Treme isn’t as good as The Wire—it isn’t as tight and coherent, but it’s an entertaining and often thoughtful series that seems pretty authentic.

Food

Tarte aux AbricotsTarte aux Abricots at the Le Panier bakery in Seattle. Melt in the mouth flaky pastry, sweet-tart glazed apricots. Magnificent.

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.

52 weeks – 28 October, 2012

Book

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.  I started out listening to this on CD and ended up by reading the book — it’s always interesting to compare the two experiences. Sunil Malhotra reads with a wonderful Anglo-Indian accent, which provides extra background atmosphere. One oddity of that accent is that the letter P sounds like B and C sounds like G, among other characteristics. So it wasn’t until I finally read the printed page that I realized the twins’ mother was Sister Mary Joseph Praise, not Braise.

Early in the story, the twins’ mother goes into labour at Missing Hospital in Ethiopia, where she works. Nobody had known she was pregnant and the shock and disbelief surrounding this news contribute to fatal delays in treatment. So, despite the belated efforts of the hospital staff, Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies giving birth to the twins, named Marion and Shiva. Their father, the surgeon Thomas Stone, arrives too late to save her and consequently bitterly resents and abandons his sons.

The story thereafter is seen mainly through the eyes of Marion, the first-born twin. The twins are raised by two doctors from the hospital, Hema and Ghosh. Inevitably, both boys show aptitude for medicine and learn from their parents.

The book is rich with the drama of village life and family life, the practice of medicine in a country where conditions are often primitive, and later the politics and bloodshed of Ethiopia during the reign and overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Medical conditions and operations are described in detail, providing an intriguing look at human anatomy, the things that can go wrong with it, and the things that doctors and surgeons can do to repair it. Marion’s early matter-of-fact acceptance of these things and his growing fascination with the medical life unfold through much of the story.

There was only one thing I found less than believable. In this setting it’s inevitable that the topic of female genital mutilation should be raised, but it seemed unlikely that it would have been done to this particular character in this particular circumstance.

Aside from that quibble, I was under the spell of this book, completely enthralled by the writing. Verghese’s understanding of human quirks and human frailty is impressive. He makes you care about the twists in the lives of the twins and those in their circle. You enter their world and don’t want to leave it.

Food

I spent a much-needed few days away at Whistler: walks in the fresh, chilled air, reading and catching up on movies I’d missed, and enjoying lots of good food and drink.

I had this beautiful beet salad at Araxi. If you are in the Whistler area in October next year, check to see if they are doing the special October tasting menu. I am not a fan of huge plates of anything, so I love multi-course tasting menus: lots of different flavours and textures, beautifully presented and the opportunity to try several things instead of having to pick one or two. This was the second course in a dinner of smoked Roma tomato soup, mushroom risotto, ricotta gnocchi, and poached pear.

Play

Cozy Catastrophe by Theatre Melee/Rumble Productions at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre: “a dark comedy about ordinary folks bound together by extraordinary circumstance.”

My companion and I sat down and looked at the program. We were confused. Did we really buy tickets for something described as a zombie-apocalypse play? We bought tickets for the 2012-2013 play season back in spring or summer, so maybe we had just forgotten what we chose. Or maybe we thought it would be suitable for the week before Hallowe’en.

Well, it turned out to be a lot of fun. I agree with Plank Magazine’s “Unabashedly, hilariously gross.” Four strangers sheltering in a warehouse after some global disaster, the flashes and explosions of which continue to echo throughout, are trying to decide what to do. They consider applying the lessons of their lives so far. Make a two-column list of their needs and what they have on hand? Consider eating each other if and when the time comes? Repopulate the earth? Their deadpan demeanour works really well.

We laughed throughout the whole thing. It was a light, fun start to the play season.

52 weeks – 7 October, 2012

book

The second part of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Laguna is so different from the first that it seems as though it ought to be clearly labelled a sequel.

In the earlier part, Fletcher is depicted growing up with his feckless mother in Mexico, moving from place to place, and finding positions first in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and then with Lev Trotsky. The text is lavishly sprinkled with Mexican words and Frida Kahlo’s version of English is gloriously mangled. The world is colourful.

In the second part, Fletcher makes his rather grey, adult life in the US after the death of his American father. At first, he succeeds as a writer and it seems as though this lonely character has found a suitable niche. But he is living in the US during the McCarthy era and he comes to the attention of government agents. His former associations are taken as clear evidence of Communist sympathies.

Here, there is another lacuna: missing notebooks that could be used against Fletcher. It is also the gap between truth and reputation. Kingsolver delivers a frightening portrait of a net closing in around Fletcher, where wild accusations are given the weight of truth and the words of a character in one of his books are repeated endlessly as his own, supposedly treasonous, view. How can a modern country be gripped by such hysteria? Well — looking at some of the news coverage of US politicians over the past decade — only too easily, it appears, and it is still possible for accusations without a shred of hard evidence to be taken as truth by those who are receptive.

His secretary, Mrs. Violet Brown, a simple, straightforward woman who becomes deeply loyal to her employer, narrates much of the second part of the book. Her old fashioned American small town colloquialisms (“My stars,” “Fiddlesticks,” “Mr. Fletcher, how be ye?”) are perfectly rendered.

food

October brings a three-course fixed price special dinner to the Salmon House. For dessert, I had the Floating Island, a heavenly confection of lightly poached meringue on créme anglaise with little puddles of dulce de leche in it. It was so good, I could have licked the plate.

movie

Saw Rust and Bone at the Vancouver Film Festival. Before going, I knew only that it was by a French director, Jacques Audiard, and it starred the wonderful Marion Cotillard.

The move is powerful and, most of the time, unpredictable. Cotillard and her co-star, Matthias Schoenaerts, are an unlikely pair. He makes a precarious living: he does odd jobs to support his young son and does no-holds-barred street fighting to make more money; she is a killer whale trainer. You’re left off balance by the twists and turns of their relationship and the events of their lives. A brilliant, disturbing film.

52 weeks – 30 September, 2012

book

Listened to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, read by the author. I didn’t notice who the reader was at first, but I noticed how careful she was to enunciate clearly — almost too carefully, as if English were not her first language. But by the end of the first disk I had adjusted to the slow pace and careful pronunciation and started to rather like it. There are a lot of Mexican words, but you can usually guess what they mean from the context.

The way Kingsolver reads is a fitting counterpart to the way she writes. Her use of language is uniquely fresh — never for a moment does she resort to cliché.

25 August

Today begins the year of all suffering at the School of Cretins, Deaf-Mutes, and Boys of Bad Character on Avenida Puig. The classroom is like a prison hall full of writhing convicts, its iron-barred windows set high along one wall. Small boys and monkeys for pupils. No one else there could be fourteen or anything near it, they’re the size of baboons. The Holy Virgin feels very sorry but remains outside, on her cement pedestal in the small tidy garden. She has sent her son Jesus in with the other wretches, and he can’t flee either. He is pegged to his cross on the wall, dying all the day, rolling his eyes behind the back of the Señora Bartolome, even He can’t stand the look of her clay-pipe legs and those shoes.

She teaches one subject only: “Extricta Moralidad!” The tropical climate inclines young persons of Mexican heritage to moral laxity, she says.

Señora Bartolome, perdon. We are at an elevation of 2,300 meters above sea level, so it isn’t tropical, strictly speaking. The average monthly temperature ranges from twelve to eighteen degrees Centigrade. It’s from the Geographical Atlas.

Punished for insolence. Bad Character accomplished, the first day of term. Tomorrow perhaps, Deaf-Mute. After that one could aspire to Cretin.

The Lacuna is the story of the life and times of Harrison Fletcher, who spends several periods of his early life in Mexico and later lives in the U.S. (He has a Mexican mother and a “gringo” father.) The history of the two countries in the Thirties through to the Second World War forms the backdrop of the first part of the novel. Fictionalized historic figures appear: Fletcher spends time in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and is a secretary to Trotsky. Even though we are reading fictionalized history, Kingsolver makes us realize how much of a lacuna — a gap, something that is missing — there is between events and the memory of them, particularly when events become history with all the filtering and shading that happens as history is written.

Kingsolver herself says,

This novel about memory, history, American political identity, privacy, celebrity, gossip and truth, I had contemplated for decades … It is without doubt the most difficult and satisfying work I’ve done.

more …

food

Sushi and shrimp/scallop skewers at Deep Cove Osaka.

TV series

Parade’s End. Oh dear: I was so sure I was going to love Parade’s End. But love has not blossomed after watching the first two episodes. Probably I should watch a couple more episodes before coming to hasty conclusions. It didn’t help that the sound was somewhat murky on the recording.

It has such promise. Ford Madox Ford’s story is one of moral struggle. The adaptation is by Tom Stoppard. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job of stiff integrity and conservatism as John Tietjens. So far, I am finding Rebecca Hall a bit over the top in the role of his selfish and shallow wife and Adelaide Clemens just too young and naive as his platonic love interest. But I want to like it. So I will continue watching.