52 weeks – 3 March, 2013

Books

The Little Stranger coverThe Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: an interesting but slightly unsatisfactory book. Waters creates a mysterious atmosphere and the period feel of the late nineteen-forties in a remote village in Warwickshire. The English class system remains pretty pervasive at the village and the Ayres’ family home, Hundreds Hall, despite changes in the outside world.  Dr. Faraday, the narrator, begins his relationship to the Ayres family as a physician and becomes a family friend, although from time to time incidents and comments remind him that he does not really belong.

Faraday is not the most reliable of narrators. His support of the family is affected by his own beliefs and, although he faithfully narrates the mysterious events that occur at the house, they are always filtered through his medical perspective. So he describes the son Roderick’s deterioration in terms of mental illness. Of course, the reader sees that the occurrences can’t be fully explained away like that — but then, we are hearing what Farraday chooses to tell us and we don’t know how much of his bluff, old-fashioned doctor’s manner is genuine and how much is affected by his increasing relationship with the family and the house itself.

There is a muted, end-of-an-era feel as Mrs. Ayres clings to a disappearing way of life in a house that is deteriorating around her:

… after watching her for a moment, Caroline gently took the record from her hands, opened up the gramophone, and set it to play. The disc was old, and the gramophone needle badly wanted replacing; at first all they heard was the hiss and crackle of the shellac. Then, slightly chaotically, there came the boom of the orchestra. The singer’s voice seemed to struggle against it, until finally the soprano rose purely, ‘like some lovely, fragile creature,” Caroline told me later, “breaking free of thorns.”

It must have been an oddly poignant moment. The day was dark with rain again, and the saloon was quite dim. The fire and the purring heaters cast an almost romantic light, so that for a minute or two the room — for all that the paper was hanging from the walls and its ceiling bulging — seemed alive with glamour.

Sarah Water is the author of four other novels, including the very clever Fingersmith, set in Victorian England.

MUSIC

Martha-WainwrightMartha Wainwright in concert at the Rio, an intimate east-side theatre. Her emotions are raw and her natural personality comes across, easily bridging the gap between the stage and the audience. She sang some songs from I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, some from her French language album Trauma and a lot of songs from her new album Come Home to Mama, including the spellbinding Proserpina (written by her mother, Kate McGarrigle, shortly before her death in 2010).

Food and drink

Cauliflower soupCauliflower soup with Gorgonzola cream at Grub restaurant on Main Street.

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52 weeks – 24 February, 2013

Books

NW - coverNW by Zadie Smith: it’s a rich and confusing blend. The story of the lives of four people living in northwest London, it is difficult to read. Written in a blend of styles that perhaps mirrors the multicultural society it is about, it is nevertheless full of keen observations about race and class identity, friendships and love relationships.

Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only — quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps … A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton-stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. Bearing no relation to the debates in the papers, in parliament.

168. African minimart endgame
She had a new urge for something other than pure forward momentum. She wanted to conserve. To this end, she began going in search of the food of her childhood. On Saturday mornings, straight after vising the enormous British supermarket, she struggled up the high road with two children in a double buggy and no help to the little African minimart to buy things like yam and salted cod and plantain. It was raining. Horizontal rain. Both children were screaming. Could there be misery loftier than hers?

… Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand.

MUSIC

Pulp Fiction - soundtrackThe music of the movie Pulp Fiction. A second disk in the package has director Quentin Tarantino talking about how he personally chooses music for his movies. He is unapologetic about his love for seventies music and, listening to these tracks, I am right back there with him. From the opening track, Misirlou by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones (started off by a few lines from Pumpkin and Honeybunny as they hold up the diner), to the wonderful Dusty Springfield version of Son of a Preacher Man that plays when John Travolta as Vincent Vega goes to pick up Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) to the completely perfect Urge Overkill version of Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon — well, it’s hard to pick a favourite. If you’re not somewhere you can dance to it, it’s great driving music.

Food and drink

CappuccinoThe classic cappuccino. Served at Brazza Gelato and Coffee on Lonsdale in North Vancouver.

52 weeks – 17 February, 2013

Book

I Capture the Castle - coverI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Published in 1948 and set in the early thirties, this book has a seventeen-year-old narrator with a pleasingly modern sensibility.

Cassandra Mortmain is one of the three Mortmain children who live with their father James and their stepmother, Topaz, in a remote and uncomfortable English castle leased by their father after the success of his first novel. For the past ten years he has been unable to write anything publishable, so the Mortmains sell off pieces of furniture and other valuables and live in poverty. Stephen, son of their former maid, helps out without any wages. He is in love with Cassandra.

The Cotton family, owners of the castle lease, move in to a nearby home. Cassandra and her elder sister Rose immediately become interested in the brothers, Simon and Neil.

Simon falls in love with Rose and, although she doesn’t return his feelings, she agrees to marry him to save the family fortunes. Cassandra realizes she is in love with Simon but decides to suffer secretly. At about this time, she and her brother Thomas decide on drastic action to try to shock their father into writing again.

This story of a young woman growing up is slightly poignant while being very funny. It is written in the form of Cassandra’s journal entries. This has the potential to be annoyingly cute, but fortunately it isn’t.

Cassandra is a believable creation who daydreams but who also has a practical, commonsense approach to life. Her attitude to matters sexual is typically no-nonsense:

… those five Bennets at the opening of Pride and Prejudice, simply waiting to raven the young men at Netherfield Park, are not giving one thought to the real facts of marriage. I wonder if Rose is? I must certainly try to make her before she gets involved in anything. Fortunately, I am not ignorant in such matters — no stepchild of Topaz’s could be. I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them.

The Vicar has a rather better understanding of Cassandra’s nature than any of her family:

The Cottons’ car came, with a uniformed chauffeur, and out we sailed. I was harrowed at leaving Stephen and Thomas behind, but Topaz had arranged they should have a supper with consoling sausages.

We called for the Vicar, which made it rather a squash, what with Rose’s crinoline … He is the nicest man — about fifty, plump, with curly golden hair; rather like an elderly baby — and most unholy. Father once said to him: “God knows how you came to be a clergyman.” and the Vicar said: “Well, it’s His business to know.”

After he’d had a look at us he said: “Mortmain, your women are spectacular.”

I’m not,” I said.

“Ah, but you’re the insidious type — Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl…”

Dodie Smith was known for decades as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but I Capture the Castle has always had a strong following. Now, as a result of the 2003 film by Tim Fywell, it continues to gain in popularity. It is one of those slightly below-the-radar, low-key but enduring delights.

Music

Jeremy Fisher at the Electric OwlJeremy Fisher at the Electric Owl. A perfect concert! Jeremy Fisher comes across as an absolutely nice person: funny, easygoing, not arrogant. The Electric Owl is just the right intimate venue for him.

Of course, you can’t get a good picture with an iPhone in a darkened room with bright lights on the stage, but this blurry image captured the feel of the concert for me.

Here is a video Fisher made of Shine a Little Light:

Food

Whispering AngelCaves D’Esclans Whispering Angel — a light, dry rosé, crisp and delicious.

Enjoyed with two old friends and one new one at Shanik, Meeru Dhalwala’s new Indian restaurant in Seattle.

52 weeks – 3 February, 2013

Book

MaggieO'Farrell book - coverMaggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I didn’t know anything about this author when the book was chosen by one of the book clubs to which I belong. O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has written four previous novels.

The Hand That First Held Mine is two stories told in alternating chapters. Lexie Sinclair is a rebellious young woman growing up in Britain in the post-war years who, tired of her stifling family life at home, runs away to London. In present-day London, Elina and Ted have their first child. Both of them go through crises in the weeks and months following the birth.

Elina has had a traumatic time post-birth. Ted and she seem disconnected from the world and each other:

He stares at the postcard, the red line that bisects the blue triangle, that towers over the black shape crouched in the corner. He’d seen the painting as it emerged on the canvas. He wasn’t supposed to have seen it — she didn’t like anyone to see her work before she deemed it finished — but he’d peered through the window of her studio when he’d known she wasn’t looking. It was his way of keeping up with what went on inside her head. He’d seen it hang on the wall of her gallery, he’d watched the red dot go up beside it at the private view and the glow on her face as she saw this. And now it hung in the house of a music producer and Ted often wondered if the man loved it as much as he should, if it was hung in the right way, in the right light.

Four days ago, she’d almost died.

The thought has a physical effect on him. One of disorientation and nausea, like seasickness or looking down from a high building. He has to lean his head in his hands and breathe deeply, and he feels the earlier tears crowding into his throat.

Lexie also has a baby, though she has an easier time of it. And the father is less involved:

He laid the flowers on the bed, on top of Lexie’s feet. He said, “A boy. How marvellous. How are you?’

Lexie said, ‘We’re fine.’

She saw him smile, lean towards her. ‘Congratulations, sweetie, very well done,’ he said and kissed her cheek. Then he sank into a chair. ‘Although I’m a tiny bit cross,’ he said, ‘that you didn’t call me straight away. You poor darling, coming in here on your own. Very naughty of you.’ He treated her to one of his deep, intimate smiles. ‘I sent a telegram to my mother. She’ll be delighted. She’ll be looking out the family christening robe as we speak.’

You would probably guess that something will tie the two parts together. It isn’t clear until well into the two stories how they will be related and the connection is foggier because of a plot development in the present-day story that in the end goes nowhere. But the stories are compelling. As with other novels having this structure, I get a little annoyed every time I’m abruptly taken away from Lexie’s world and plunged back into that of Elina and Ted; then I get caught up in the present-day world and annoyed when the chapter ends and I’m back in 1950s Soho. But the annoyance is only momentary until I am once more absorbed. So I plan to look for more novels by this author.

Music

garnier-louis-xivListened to “Fire & Finesse”: A Royal Concert — Cantatas & Chamber Music from the Time of the Sun King. Violinist Marc Destrubé, harpsichordist Jacques Ogg, and gambist Natalie Mackie were joined by soprano Catherine Webster.

Instead of a photo of the performers, I am posting this detail from a painting by Jean Garnier —  “Portrait of Louis XIV surrounded by musical instruments, flowers and fruit” (1672), as I think it embodies the rich, stately, feel of the period that was in turn captured by this concert. This was another in the series of joyful, intimate concerts at the Kay Meek Centre presented by Early Music Vancouver.

Food

TartsRhubarb tarts and butter tarts made by a friend. They have the perfect ratio of filling to pastry. The filling is not too sweet. These are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea at any time of day.

52 weeks – 20 January, 2013

Book

The Marriage Plot - coverThe Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s been a while since Middlesex, Eugenides’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about the life of a Greek man with intersex characteristics. The Marriage Plot is another big novel. It follows the lives of three characters for a year or two as they graduate from university and figure out what to do next.

At Brown University, Madeleine has studied the marriage plot in the work of Austen and other early novelists. Leonard has done biology and philosophy. Mitchell has discovered religion. The next chapter of their lives begins with the big question: what to do after graduation? Through their struggles to define themselves and find their places, Eugenides gives us the world in 1982 in microcosm. And the mating dance is of course part of the coming of age story: as with the marriage plot in more traditional novels, there is a triangle: Mitchell loves Madeleine; Madeleine loves Leonard.

Time and place and social mores are captured perfectly in Eugenides’ clear prose. Here is Providence on the morning of the graduation ceremonies:

Early June, Providence, Rhode Island, the sun up for almost two hours already, lighting up the pale bay and the smokestacks of the Narragansett Electric factory, rising like the sun on the Brown University seal emblazoned on all the pennants and banners draped up over campus, a sun with a sagacious face, representing knowledge. But this sun — the one over Providence — was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope to the squadrons of parents, who’d been soaked and frozen all weekend, that the unseasonable weather might not ruin the day’s festivities.

And here are the students in a semiotics class, sizing each other up:

Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of the ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans.  A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy’s face — it was like a baby’s that had grown whiskers — and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he’d shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.  She was relieved, therefore, when a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots showed up and took the empty seat next to her. He had a cup of take-out coffee.

Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar.

The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.” When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.

Music

Sylvain BergeronAn afternoon of violas da gamba, lute, and tenor voice in Perchance to Dreame: The Golden Age of English Music at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre. Gambists (as I now know to call them) Susie Napper and  Margaret Little and lute player Sylvain Bergeron produced some beautiful, stately music, along with tenor Charles Daniels.

In the intimate setting of the small studio theatre, members of the audience get to study the appearance of the musicians as well as listen to them. Each of the musicians in this concert was interesting to look at, but Sylvain Bergeron might have been designed as the perfect lutenist. He is tall, slim, and aristocratic-looking with silver hair and a noble profile. I admit this added to my pleasure in the concert …

Food

Chocolate cream cupThis was the heavenly dessert with a very long name  (Valrhona Manjari Dark Chocolate Cream Cup with Marzipan and Brandied Black Cherries Cherry Compote) that nicely finished off a Dine Out Vancouver menu at the Dockside Restaurant on Granville Island. For my appetizer I had Dungeness Crab and Corn Bisque, with a rich, densely flavourful seafood base. For the main course, I went for the vegetarian option: Grilled Leek and Carrot Wrapped Quinoa Butternut Squash and Almond Hash. With asparagus and shallots on yellow tomato coulis. Absolutely delicious, with a great mix of textures.

52 weeks – 23 December, 2012

Book

Bring up the BodiesRead Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, a sequel to her stunning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall. It’s another rich experience: once again, you are completely immersed in the intrigues of the court of Henry VIII. The books follow consecutive segments of the career of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly-born but clever and ambitious man who becomes the king’s chief adviser. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell assists with both the annulment of the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the establishment of the doctrine of royal supremacy over the church, concurrent with the Protestant Reformation — these drastic measures being necessary to support the King in his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. In Bring up the Bodies, Anne has disappointed the King in providing him with only a daughter instead of the male heir he so passionately desires. Cromwell assists the King to get rid of Anne so that he can marry Jane Seymour.

It’s a great strength of the book that you see all the events through Cromwell’s eyes. You see them with the emotional immediacy of a novel while absorbing the feel of the period: historical facts are presented within a richly textured narrative that makes you feel you are there, living in this complex world.

Cromwell is hardly a likeable character but he is a man well suited to his times: cunning, pragmatic and flexible, with the mind of a lawyer. He understands Henry and his skill in fulfilling Henry’s wishes has enabled him to profit well from the association. He continues to accumulate money, goods and power.

No fee attached to the post of Secretary. The scope of the job is ill-defined and this suits him; whereas the Lord Chancellor has his circumscribed role, Mr Secretary can inquire into any office of state or corner of government. He has letters from throughout the shires, asking him to arbitrate in land disputes or lend his name to some stranger’s cause. People he doesn’t know send him tittle-tattle about their neighbours, monks send accounts of disloyal words spoken by their superiors, priests sift for him the utterances of their bishops. The affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear, and so plural are his offices under the Crown that the great business of England, parchment and roll awaiting stamp and signet, is pushed or pulled across his desk, to himself or from himself. His petitioners send him malmsey and muscatel, geldings, game and gold; gifts and grants and warrants, lucky charms and spells. This has been going on since first he came into the king’s favour. He is rich.

And naturally, envy follows. His enemies dig out what they can, about his early life. ‘So, I went down to Putney,’ Gardiner had said. ‘Or, to be accurate, I sent a man. They said down there, who’d have thought that Put-an-edge-on-it would have risen so high? We all thought he’d be hanged by now.’

Despite his many ill-wishers, Cromwell manages well by depending on his intelligence and quick thinking, and he is somewhat insulated from the insults and posturing of his enemies at court by the King’s regard. The King, though, has a mercurial temperament so Cromwell can never relax his guard.

The swift and ruthless destruction of Anne Boleyn and her five supposed lovers is chilling. They are interrogated by Cromwell, but there is no real way out. They are in the way and they must be removed.

Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton, and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.

This is another remarkable book from Hilary Mantel and I am looking forward to the third in the trilogy.

Food

Heirloom saladA happy contrast to rich Christmas fare, this salad at Heirloom Vegetarian restaurant on South Granville is satisfying and a complete meal. With pear, hazelnuts, fennel, roasted Brussels sprouts, and an “orange blossom” vinaigrette — there’s a flavour in the dressing that I couldn’t pin down, but it was delicious — I could eat here a lot and would never miss meat or fish.

Music

Festive Bach CantatasDecember is a special month for music, and choral concerts are my favourite way to get into the Christmas mood. This was Festive Bach Cantatas for Christmas, featuring Marc Destrubé and Early Music Vancouver’s Bach Cantata Project Players, soprano Shannon Mercer, alto Laura Pudwell, tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Sumner Thompson. An afternoon of glorious music in the spectacular Chan Centre with a happily receptive audience — a great way to get that goodwill to all men feeling.

52 weeks – 16 December, 2012

Television mini-series

Romola Garai as EmmaSaw Emma, a TV mini-series from 2009, with Romola Garai in the leading role. I have lost count of the number of times Jane Austen novels have been dramatized in the last couple of decades, since Jane Austen became newly marketable, but in fact the last two Emmas were back in 1996: the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and the TV movie with Kate Beckinsale.

This one: well worth watching, though with some flaws. In general, Romola Garai portrays the charming but exasperating Emma well, though Emma’s behaviour at the Box Hill picnic seems like a complete personality change rather than the momentary lapse of propriety that I think it ought to be. Similarly I found Rupert Evans, as Frank Churchill, so immature and moody that it is hard to imagine how Emma could have been attracted to him, even briefly.

Michael Gambon teeters on the edge of caricature as Mr. Woodhouse (perhaps it’s hard not to), but manages to keep the character on track as a neurotic but loving father.  Jonny Lee Miller is a very good Mr. Knightley.

Overall, I’d recommend it to lovers of Austen who, like me, can usually find endless delight in debating the nuances of how the characters are portrayed — we get to compare them to both the text of the book and the images in our heads.

Food

Crab CakesThe crab and shrimp cakes with roasted corn salsa and garlic aioli at the Water Street Café in Gastown. I am a creature of habit when I find perfect restaurant dishes and this is one I have returned for many times.

Music

The Laudate SingersA Baroque Christmas with The Laudate Singers at St. Andrew’s. The program featured Charpentier’s Te Deum and Messe de Minuit. The choir was joined by instrumentalists Nancy DiNovo, Paul Luchkow, Ray Nurse, Natalie Mackie, Christopher Bagan and Kris Kwapis.

The concert opened with Mouret’s Premiere Suite de Symphonies. The Rondeau is familiar from its association with Masterpiece Music, but how rewarding it was to hear a different interpretation with a lovely, sprightly/stately bounce that made me listen to it anew.

The Messe de Minuit and Te Deum were beautifully sung, with Mark Donnelly’s pure countertenor as an added delight.